By Raymond S. Spears
TWO , men rode down the steep banks of Muddy Run and met in midstream.
One was a brawny, bushy-whiskered man on a proud-stepping saddle-horse, while the other was a lank youth whose angles showed that he had not quite reached his full growth. The youth's horse was a shaggy, bony creature which seemed to have been often exposed to the weather. As the horses reached to drink, the man turned in bis saddle and faced the youth fiercely.
"Ain't I tole you-all to keep away from my girl?"_he demanded. "Po'r, apron-stringed, putterin', shiftless, no-account boy! What for you-uns think teh go with her, eh?"
"Because I 'low she loves me!" the youth drawled, facing the man squarely, but without displaying any emotion.
The man gasped.
"What's that!" he shouted.
Then he plunged at the youth and both fell from, their horses into the running water, where they fought, rolled over and over by the current till they lodged on a gravel bar ten rods down stream. There the man came uppermost, and pounded his opponent's face to his heart's content.
When he ceased, the youth was limp and insensible.
"There, Clint Tazewell!" the man said, "I 'low nex' time Lon Campbell tells ye to keep clear of his, yo'll mind!"
With that he rode away on his horse, while the shaggy mare snuffled over the prostrate figure in the water, wondering what was the matter.
An hour later Tazewell began to recover consciousness. He tried to open his eyes, but found them painfully swollen. He could feel the water lapping against his clothes and, gradually, he remembered what had happened.
The rough clinch at the ford, the fall into the water, the struggle for foothold and fist-freedom were recalled little by little, and at last he sat up and held an eye open to look about him. There was his faithful mare, and up stream was the gash made by the bridle-path in the steep banks of the run.
"Law! Law!" he muttered. "That man done whupped me, he shore did! He beat me all up!"
He rose to his feet, painfully climbed to the saddle and clucked to the mare, telling her to go home, making a sorry figure as he rode along, clinging with both hands to the pommel, his face swollen and his clothes pulled and torn awry. Two of his neighbors saw him pass by. but made no attempt to stop or question him. They had seen Lon Campbell go down the road and they had divined what had happened. They were surprised that young Tazewell had escaped with only a "beating up."
Arriving at his home, Clint dismounted and turned his horse into the pasture. Then he felt his way to the little log house where his mother met him face to face at the door.
"My land, Clint, what has happened?" she cried.
"Campbell—Lon Campbell don hit!" he answered. "He beat me up!"
The mother led her son to a chair before the open fireplace and made him sit down. Then she killed a chicken and bandaged his face with the warm meat next to his skin, soothing him all the while as he choked back the sobs that came into his throat. At last, she had done every thing she could for him.
"Theh!" she said. "You'll soon be all right, Clinty."
"Jes' wait tell I can see!" he gasped suddenly. "Jes' wait tell I can see them sights!"
"Oh, Clint!" she said. "Don't! Don't! Le's don' have no shootin' up. He's her father. She'd never forgive ye."
He made no reply, and for days after sat in ominous silence while the swelling of the bruises gradually disappeared, leaving his face a ghastly yellow hue.
In a week's time he was working about the little place, shucking corn, cutting wood, and making things snug for the winter. Day by day his mother begged him not to arouse the wrath of the Campbells by killing their leader. Her one convincing argument was:
"His gal never will love you no more, if you kill him."
Nothing else appealed to Clint—much less fear of the numerous Campbells. He felt that there were not enough of them to satisfy his lust for revenge on the family which held itself so much above the Tazewells that they frowned upon his courting pretty Laura. But, of course, he excepted her from the plans of vengeance which he was secretly laying in His heart. His mother convinced him that he must see Laura first.
The time came when he once more crossed the ridges to the Copper Bottoms, where he sat down in the orchard on the little knoll behind Lon Campbell's house. The shades were down, but a bright light was burning within. He mimicked the whippoorwill's song with a low whistle. It had never failed before, but there was no answer to it now. He repeated it several times, but without avail. The girl did not come. Nevertheless, it was evident that the call had been heard, for the light was quickly extinguished when his plaintive notes quavered in the night.
Clint waited long, but no sound came to warm his heart. As he sat there, he realized that he had lost the girl, unless he could "do something."
"That man's watching her like a hawk," he said to himself, "I'll shore have teh settle with him first. Yasseh!"
He turned homeward, wondering just what he had better do—wondering whether to go riding the bridle-paths rifle in hand to kill his sweetheart's father, or to "wait his chance." It was late when he climbed to his husk bed in the garret of his home. Next day his mother did not call him, for she knew he had been out late the night before.
The morning was just half gone when Lon Campbell rode up the bridle-path to the Widow Tazewell's little farm. She was at the spring-house drawing a bucket of water when he arrived within speaking distance.
Campbell was not unacquainted with Mrs. Tazewell. His errand that morning was not so much to seek Clint as it was to humble her pride. He remembered the time when the Clintons were set against him because he was poor and no-account, and, though he had afterward "married well," the memory had never lost its sting, especially now that he was a widower.
'Lida Clinton's charms had never been entirely out of his mind, and now that she was the Widow Tazewell, he longed to glory over her poverty and supposed distress.
He saw her before she caught sight of him, and had opportunity to notice that her carriage was not less, graceful than it had been when she was a girl. As she turned at the sound of his horse's hoofs, he noted that there was still a saucy tilt to her nose and a poise to her head which had always stirred the anger in his heart, it was so proud and independent. Now the woman's pride almost pleased him, he was so sure that he could humble it by a threat.
"Look a hyar, Mrs. Tazewell," he began. "Whah's that son of yonrn? I ain' got no hawd feelin's agin you-all, but I tell you naow, ef you don' keep that poh white-trash son of yourn to hum, I'll—I'll——"
"An' what'll you do, Lon Campbell?" the woman demanded with a toss of her head.
The question and the way it was put were so unexpected that Campbell was abashed. The next moment the accumulated wrath of years welled from his heart, and he cursed the family and the son of the woman whom he had loved in his youth.
"That patched an' gangling boy of yourn'll shore git hurt if he don' keep away from my gal!" he exclaimed. "I get betteh ideas than havin" her marryin' inteh side-hill pone-eaters, an' I tell ye naow. my gal's got a sweetheart as has money an' clothes an' sense, he shore has! An' you keep that Clint Tazewell home, I tell ye!"
The woman laughed in his face, as he jerked his horse around and drove away down the bridle-path at a gallop. The way to the woods was not far, fortunately for him. As be disappeared. Clint sprang through the doorway, rifle in hand, just too late to get a shot.
"Clint! Clint! " Mrs Tazewell cried.
It was a long time before she could quiet him, nor did she succeed until she had explained the fact that Campbell had courted her in her youth, her ready wit divining the chief reason for Campbell's visit. She told her son that Campbell's daughter was being courted by some one else. Clint listened quietly enough, and then said:
"I 'low I'd betteh see that man. I reckon I know him. He's Tip Calloway. He works in a store an' wears a white collar."
A few days later Clint met Tip on the road between Kyle's Ford and Copper Bottoms.
"Naow. see here. Mr. Tip Calloway." Clint drawled, shifting his repeater from the crook of his elbow. "I 'low they ain't no use of your comin' up this road no mob. You-all's rich, but we-uns shoots right smart, yasseh. We shoots right smart"
Tip's pale face twitched, but he was not the kind of youth to make a fight. Without a word he turned his horse around to gallop back to Kyle's Ford. There was much to dread from such a lank, red-looking mountaineer. Clint grinned over his easy victory. He had expected a harder fight.
The experience with Tip gave him confidence, for his struggle with Lon Campbell, who was a grown man, much feared by the timid souls of the region.
Campbell supposed that he had cowed Clint, till he heard that Tip Calloway had been "run out of the country." then his wrath was boundless.
First of all, he sent word to Clint by a neighbor that he was going to repeat the beating that had taken place in Muddy Run. Then he told his daughter what Ciint had done, fancying that Clint's impudence would make her as wrathful as it had made him. Instead, it surprised and pleased her. She had willingly turned from Clint when she heard how he had been whipped by her father, not knowing that he had come to see her one night when she was visiting her aunt.
She knew now that Clint cared, and that he had courage that reached above a mere whipping. But the fact that her father had threatened to beat Clint again frightened her. She understood the Clinton Tazewell spirit better than her father did.
"Oh, pop" she said. "what's the use of whipping him again? He's jest a boy—an' you're a big man. Besides—besides——"
"Huh!" the man answered, "I'll whip him twict as hard! I shore will!"
The girl made no answer, but fear came to her heart—the fear that her lover would kill the man whose threats were scattered in all directions now. The neighbors talked of the "trouble," wondering what its next turn would be. There was only one question any one asked, and that was:
"What'Il Clint do? Will he let that man beat him up again? He cayn't fight him with his fists."
Most of them thought Clint would shrink from fighting the man, knowing how many relatives there were to take up the quarrel if Clint should "go to war"—use his rifle, that is. But some few, Laura among the rest, feared that Clint had just that courage—the courage that would not count the odds against him. One day her fears were shown to lie justified. Mabel Green, her dearest friend, brought her some news.
"Clint's riding up an' down the roads a sight more'n he used to do," Mabel told her. "Mostly he has his rifle with him. but he ain't saying anything to anybody. Even his mother is plumb scar'rt up about what he's doing; he's that quiet an' don't say anything even to her."
Laura's heart fluttered at this news.
"He'll kill him! He'll kill him!" she cried to herself. "Pop's so hard headed! I mustn't let him do it! I mustn't!"
That night Laura did a strange thing for a Campbell to do.
She slipped out of her house and ran up among the ridges to beg for mercy from an enemy of her father. She came up the path to the Tazewell clearing and whistled—whistled like a mocking-bird—a sound which she knew Clint was not likely to ignore.
Clint was by the fireplace, cleaning his rifle. He started, but his mother had turned her face to listen, and so did not notice the motion.
"My land!" she said. "I never knowed a mocking-bird to sing like that this time of year before! Huh!"
"Hit's a young un, an' I 'low I'll go ketch hit!" Clint remarked, taking down his hat. As he passed through the doorway his mother's face lightened up.
"Lawse!" she said to herself. "Hits some friend of hisn. I might of knowed!"
Even she didn't dream of a Campbell coming at night to ask for what Laura was about to ask.
As the days had gone by, Campbell had made more threats. Instead of threatening to beat Clint, the fact that the youth was carrying a rifle caused him to carry his own—and he changed the threat from a whipping to shooting the youth. Only Laura had dared to interfere, and failing with her father, she came to his intended victim.
As Clint came to her in the bridle-path she threw her arms around his neck and began to cry. Clint could only gasp and stutter.
"Don't kill mv father!" she cried. "Don't kill him! He's all I got! Mammy's dead, an' you'll kill him! Don't. Clint! Don't!"
"He's got a gun to kill me with, an' I 'low I'll shore shoot back!" Clint exclaimed. "I ain't never looked for trouble with any man. I'm peaceable, but they am' no man can run me around like your dad 'lows to do. I'll shore shoot, if he draws down his gun, I shore will!"
The girl wept and begged, but Clint would not agree to do anything she said. He would not even go away for a little while till her father's wrath had died down. Weeping and sobbing, she pulled herself away from her lover and started down the road. He followed, trying to explain why he could not do as she wished, but she only wept the more. He would promise her anything, except what she asked.
Suddenly she seized him again.
"Oh, Clint, promise me—don't kill him—jes' hit him in the leg, or arm—don't kill him!"
"I'll try not to!" he exclaimed, and then the girl ran down the path and disappeared before he thought to accompany her home.
For several days Clint did not stir abroad, for his heart was moved more by the girl's plea than he was willing to admit. He was a good shot, much better than Lon Campbell, for he depended on squirrels and quail and wild turkeys for most of his fresh meat, and killing game made him expert with his rifle.
He pleaded with himself that he was merely "practising" and not avoiding a meeting, but in his heart he knew that he did not want to kill a man, much less the father of the girl he loved. What two or three friends whom he met told him did not quiet his apprehension. They said that Campbell vowed to shoot on sight.
But at last the meal was low in the box, and Clint had to ride over to the mill to have the grist ground. Taking down his rifle, he examined it carefully and then started away just as the sun lighted the trees on top of the Big Ridge. His mother watched him go down the path.
When he was out of sight she turned to do the housework, but the dragging minutes were painful. Tragedy seemed to be hanging in the air. Her thoughts turned to Lon Campbell, of all persons in the world the one with whom she wished her son to be at peace. Till then the quarrel had not seemed real, or deadly, but the whole force of the danger was plain at last—the rumors, the fight in Muddy Run, the threats, and at last the careful handling of the rifle and testing of the trigger proved to her unwilling heart that it was only too true.
She had pleaded with her son "not to mind," but with as little avail as Laura's pleading with Campbell had been.
"I cayn't let them fight!" the woman cried in her heart. "Oh! what can I do? What can I do?"
Her son was obdurate, but, perhaps, she could prevail upon the man who had been her sweetheart. With that thought she seized a little red shawl and hurried down the short-cut path to Copper Bottoms. With swift, pattering feet, she passed the mountain laurels, crossed the little runs, scaled the ridge cliff, and ran down the long slope to the Campbell fields. Without stopping or pausing, she ran to the painted house and opened the door without knocking.
Laura was sitting before the fireplace, weeping and alone. The girl looked up, and the next minute they were in each other's arms.
"Pop's gone to the mill," Laura said. "He's be'n gone an hour, an' more."
In anguish the women stared at each other. They knew from long experience in the mountains that a tragedy was impending, and they were powerless to avert it. Trembling, silent, with tears filling their eves at intervals, they sat and waited.
The rustic of a chicken among the woodchips behind the house, the grunt of a hog beyond the fence, the shrill cry of some bird made them start with exclamations. The clock ticked slowly along, each tick bringing the mountain women closer to the saddest thing they have to bear. The rasping of wheels and cogs, the unlimbering of catches and levers suddenly broke the monotone, and the clock began to strike.
A minute later from up the Mill road they heard three faint sounds.
"Spat! Spat! Spat!"
"Oh! He's done hit! He's done hit! He's killed my po'h daddy!" the girl cried, springing to her feet in a paroxysm of agony.
"Mebbe he missed! Mebbe——" Mrs. Tazewell sobbed into the girl's ears, her own heart misgiving her. Then they wept together, louder than ever.
Clint had been the first to bring a toll to the mill that morning. Others soon followed, however, and Clint found himself among neighbors whose silence quickened his nervousness. They merely greeted him, but among themselves they gave significant glances toward the rifle he carried, and more than one watched the trail as though expecting some one. Clint was glad to ride away on his mare. The lonely bridle-path was more companionable than neighbors who wondered whether he would be murdered or a murderer.
As he rode along the trail his indignation began to grow. He asked himself what he had done that any man should want to take his life?
"I'm peaceable!" he exclaimed bitterly. "I neveh harmed any man! I ain' a bad, mean man. But that Lon Campbell, be allus has be'n troublesome. He killed a man! He whupped Ole Leedin! He whupped 'Lise Wheeler! He whupped me! We neveh done him no harm! He ain' no right to treat me so! Hit ain' no right, an' I ain't goin' to stand hit no moh! I'm goin' straight to him, an' have hit aout! Yassah! I'll drap my cohn at the Forks an' ride right down theh!"
At the forks in the trail Clint hung the corn-meal on the limb of a tree and started down the path toward Copper Bottoms. As he rode his spirits rose. Heretofore, he had dreaded meeting his tormentor, but now he hurried his horse toward the man's home. He forgot the girl, for he was after vengeance now.
He passed the same houses whose occupants a few weeks before had seen him riding past, a wet, bruised, and dejected figure. The men, women, and children saw him now. and most of them understood the difference in his bearing.
"Clint's on the war-path!" Rance Wheeler exclaimed. "I knowed hit w'n't in a Tazewell or a Clinton to be undertrod an' stomped on. Hue! Theh'll be a difference teh the echo in this yeah fightin'!"
Eager as Clint was for the meeting, it came sooner than he expected.
As he rode down the bank at Muddy Run ford. Campbell came into sight on the far side of the stream, not thirty yards away. Instantly Campbell jerked his rifle from its saddle holster and started to throw it to his shoulder, while Clint, startled and surprised, merely stared. It was Campbell's opportunity, but he wasted it by firing without taking aim. The bullet tore through Clint's hat as he brought up his own rifle to take a quick, sure "turkey shot."
Campbell, seeing the rifle come true, realized that he was facing death. Then the sights dropped from the man's eye and disappeared in smoke. A blow like a sledge-hammer landed on his elbow, followed by another on his knee. His horse reared, threw the wounded man, and galloped into the brush. The next minute Clint was beside his victim.
"I didn't 'low teh kill ye, Mars Campbell!" Clint said. "I don' aim to kill ary man, so I shot ye nice an' simple like. I don' want no hawd feelin's, bec'ase I'm goin' to marry that gal of your'n, yasseh! I'll shore do hit, even if 1 have to shoot the hull Campbell family easy!"
"I 'low I cayn't help hit. Clint," Campbell exclaimed. "You was plumb reasonable with me, yasseh! Thankee, lad, I'll ride yer mare home. They ain' no hawd feelin's no moh. Tell you' mah I asts her pawdon. I've be'n mighty onmannerly with her."
Steadying the man in the saddle, Clint helped him homeward. When they arrived at Campbell's house the two women were roused from their despair by a shout. They rushed to the door, and as they opened it Clint called out:
"Come an' he'p, Maw! You here!"
The three carried the wounded man to a bed, where they dressed his wounds. At last Laura and Clint slipped away.
"I jes' knowed you'd be light on my old daddy!" the girl exclaimed, hugging Clint spasmodically.
"Sh-h!" said Clint. "What's that?"
Both heard a gentle "smack" in the room where the man was lying.
"Old daddy allus did admiah yo mammy," the girl whispered with a little laugh. "Oh, Clint, they ain' no trouble no moh! Hue!"
"Hit's powerful sweet, little honeybee!" Clint answered, drawing the girl closer to him.
Next day. when Rance Wheeler heard "the latest," he said to his wife:
"Didn't I tole they'd be a dif'rence in the echo? I wandeh will Clint marry his stepsister, er will his mother marry his father in-law? Peahs lak thehs allus somethin' teh bother a man 'bout them Tazewells an' Campbells. You neveh can tell what they'll do next."