There is no doubt that when Miss Babe Hightower stepped out on the porch, just after sunrise one fine morning in the spring of 1876, she had the opportunity of enjoying a scene as beautiful as any that nature offers to the human eye. She was poised, so to speak, on the shoulder of Lost Mountain, a spot made cheerful and hospitable by her father's industry, and by her own inspiring presence. The scene, indeed, was almost portentous in its beauty. Away above her the summit of the mountain was bathed in sunlight, while in the valley below the shadows of dawn were still hovering—a slow-moving sea of transparent gray, touched here and there with silvery reflections of light. Across the face of the mountain that lifted itself to the skies, a belated cloud trailed its wet skirts, revealing, as it fled westward, a panorama of exquisite loveliness. The fresh, tender foliage of the young pines, massed here and there against the mountain side, moved and swayed in the morning breeze until it seemed to be a part of the atmosphere, a pale-green mist that would presently mount into the upper air and melt away. On a dead pine a quarter of a mile away, a turkey-buzzard sat with wings outspread to catch the warmth of the sun; while far above him, poised in the illimitable blue, serene, almost motionless, as though swung in the centre of space, his mate overlooked the world. The wild honeysuckles clambered from bush to bush, and from tree to tree, mingling their faint, sweet perfume with the delicious odors that seemed to rise from the valley, and float down from the mountain to meet in a little whirlpool of fragrance in the porch where Miss Babe Hightower stood. The flowers and the trees could speak for themselves; the slightest breeze gave them motion: but the majesty of the mountain was voiceless; its beauty was forever motionless. Its silence seemed more suggestive than the lapse of time, more profound than a prophet's vision of eternity, more mysterious than any problem of the human mind.
It is fair to say, however, that Miss Babe Hightower did not survey the panorama that lay spread out below her, around her, and above her, with any peculiar emotions. She was not without sentiment, for she was a young girl just budding into womanhood, but all the scenery that the mountain or the valley could show was as familiar to her as the fox-hounds that lay curled up in the fence-corners, or the fowls that crowed and clucked and cackled in the yard. She had discovered, indeed, that the individuality of the mountain was impressive, for she was always lonely and melancholy when away from it; but she viewed it, not as a picturesque affair to wonder at, but as a companion with whom she might hold communion. The mountain was something more than a mountain to her. Hundreds of times, when a little child, she had told it her small troubles, and it had seemed to her that the spirit of comfort dwelt somewhere near the precipitous summit. As she grew older the mountain played a less important part in her imagination, but she continued to regard it with a feeling of fellowship which she never troubled herself to explain or define.
Nevertheless, she did not step out on the porch to worship at the shrine of the mountain, or to enjoy the marvelous picture that nature presented to the eye. She went out in obedience to the shrilly uttered command of her mother:
"Run, Babe, run! That plegged old cat's a-tryin' to drink out'n the water-bucket. Fling a cheer at 'er! Sick the dogs on 'er."
The cat, understanding the situation, promptly disappeared when it saw Babe, and the latter had nothing to do but make such demonstrations as are natural to youth, if not to beauty. She seized one of the many curious crystal formations which she had picked up on the mountain, and employed for various purposes of ornamentation, and sent it flying after the cat. She threw with great strength and accuracy, but the cat was gone. The crystal went zooning into the fence-corner where one of the hounds lay; and this sensitive creature, taking it for granted that he had been made the special object of attack, set up a series of loud yells by way of protest. This aroused the rest of the dogs, and in a moment that particular part of the mountain was in an uproar. Just at that instant a stalwart man came around the corner of the house. He was bareheaded, and wore neither coat nor vest. He was tall and well made, though rather too massive to be supple. His beard, which was full and flowing, was plentifully streaked with gray. His appearance would have been strikingly ferocious but for his eyes, which showed a nature at once simple and humorous—and certainly the strongly molded, square-set jaws, and the firm lips needed some such pleasant corrective.
"Great Jerusalem, Babe!" cried this mild-eyed giant. "What could 'a' possessed you to be a-chunkin' ole Blue that away? Ag'in bullaces is ripe you'll git your heart sot on 'possum, an' whar' is the 'possum comin' from ef ole Blue's laid up? Blame my hide ef you ain't a-cuttin' up some mighty quare capers fer a young gal."
"Why, Pap!" exclaimed Babe, as soon as she could control her laughter, "that rock didn't tetch ole Blue. He's sech a make-believe, I'm a great mind to hit him a clip jest to show you how he can go on."
"Now, don't do that, honey," said her father. "Ef you want to chunk anybody, chunk me. I kin holler lots purtier'n ole Blue. An' ef you don't want to chunk me, chunk your mammy fer ole acquaintance' sake. She's big an' fat."
"Oh, Lordy!" exclaimed Mrs. Hightower from the inside of the house. "Don't set her atter me, Abe—don't, fer mercy's sake. Get her in the notion, an' she'll be a-yerkin' me aroun' thereckly like I wuz a rag-baby. I'm a-gittin' too ole fer ter be romped aroun' by a great big double-j'inted gal like Babe. Projick wi' 'er yourself, but make 'er let me alone."
Abe turned and went around the house again, leaving his daughter standing on the porch, her cheeks glowing, and her black eyes sparkling with laughter. Babe loitered on the porch a moment, looking into the valley. The gray mists had lifted themselves into the upper air, and the atmosphere was so clear that the road leading to the mountain could be followed by the eye, save where it ran under the masses of foliage; and it seemed to be a most devious and versatile road, turning back on itself at one moment only to plunge boldly forward the next. Nor was it lacking in color. On the levels it was of dazzling whiteness, shining like a pool of water; but at points where it made a visible descent it was alternately red and gray. Something or other on this variegated road attracted Miss Babe's attention, for she shaded her eyes with her hand, and leaned forward. Presently she cried out:
"Pap!—oh, pap! there's a man a-ridin' up Peevy's Ridge."
This information was repeated by Babe's mother; and in a few moments the porch, which was none too commodious, though it was very substantial, was occupied by the entire Hightower family, which included Grandsir Hightower, a white-haired old man, whose serenity seemed to be borrowed from another world. Mrs. Hightower herself was a stout, motherly-looking woman, whose whole appearance betokened contentment, if not happiness. Abe shaded his eyes with his broad hand, and looked toward Peevy's Ridge.
"I reckon maybe it's Tuck Peevy hisse'f," Mrs. Hightower remarked.
"That's who I 'lowed hit wiz," said Grandsir Hightower, in the tone of one who had previously made up his mind.
"Well, I reckon I ought to know Tuck Peevy," exclaimed Babe.
"That's so," said Grandsir Hightower. "Babe oughter know Tuck. She oughter know him certain an' shore; bekaze he's bin a-floppin' in an' out er this house ever' Sunday fer mighty nigh two year'. Some sez he likes Babe, an' some sez he likes Susan's fried chicken. Now, in my day and time—"
"He's in the dreen now," said Babe, interrupting her loquacious grandparent, who threatened to make some embarrassing remark. "He's a-ridin' a gray."
"He's a mighty early bird," said Abe, "less'n he's a-headin' fer the furder side. Maybe he's a revenue man," he continued. "They say they're a-gwine to heat the hills mighty hot from this on."
"You hain't got nothing gwine on down on the branch, is you, Abe?" inquired Grandsir Hightower, with pardonable solicitude.
"Well," said Abe evasively, "I hain't kindled no fires yit, but you better b'lieve I'm a-gwine to keep my beer from sp'ilin'. The way I do my countin', one tub of beer is natchally wuth two revenue chaps."
By this time the horseman who had attracted Babe's attention came into view again. Abe studied him a moment, and remarked:
"That hoss steps right along, an' the chap a-straddle of him is got on store-clo'es. Fetch me my rifle, Babe. I'll meet that feller half-way an' make some inquirements about his famerly, an' maybe I'll fetch a squir'l back."
With this Abe called to his dogs, and started off.
"Better keep your eye open, Pap," cried Sis. "Maybe it's the sheriff."
Abe paused a moment, and then pretended to be hunting a stone with which to demolish his daughter, whereupon Babe ran laughing into the house. The allusion to the sheriff was a stock joke in the Hightower household, though none of them made such free use of it as Babe, who was something more than a privileged character, so far as her father was concerned. On one occasion shortly after the war, Abe had gone to the little county town on business, and had been vexed into laying rough hands on one of the prominent citizens who was a trifle under the influence of liquor. A warrant was issued, and Dave McLendon, the sheriff of the county, a stumpy little man, whose boldness and prudence made him the terror of criminals, was sent to serve it. Abe, who was on the lookout for some such visitation, saw him coming, and prepared himself. He stood in the doorway, with his rifle flung carelessly across his left arm.
"Hold on thar, Dave!" he cried, as the latter came up. The sheriff, knowing his man, halted.
"I hate to fling away my manners, Dave," he went on, "but folks is gittin' to be mighty funny these days. A man's obleeged to s'arch his best frien's 'fore he kin find out the'r which aways. Dave, what sort of a dockyment is you got ag'in' me?"
"I got a warrant, Abe," said the sheriff, pleasantly.
"Well, Dave, hit won't fetch me," said Abe.
"Oh, yes!" said the sheriff. "Yes, it will, Abe. I bin a-usin' these kind er warrants a mighty long time, an' they fetches a feller every whack."
"Now, I'll tell you what, Dave," said Abe, patting his rifle, "I got a dockyment here that'll fetch you a blame sight quicker'n your dockyment'll fetch me; an' I tell you right now, plain an' flat, I hain't a-gwine to be drug aroun' an' slapped in jail."
The sheriff leaned carelessly against the rail fence in the attitude of a man who is willing to argue an interesting question.
"Well, I tell you how I feel about it, Abe," said the sheriff, speaking very slowly. "You kin shoot me, but you can't shoot the law. Bang away at me, an' thar's another warrant atter you. This yer one what I'm already got don't amount to shucks, so you better fling on your coat saddle your horse, an' go right along wi' me thes es neighborly ez you please."
"Dave," said Abe, "if you come in at that gate you er a goner."
"Well, Abe," the sheriff replied, "I 'lowed you'd kick; I know what human natur' on these hills is, an' so I thes axed some er the boys to come along. They er right down thar in the holler. They ain't got no mo' idea what I come fer'n the man in the moon; yit they'd make a mighty peart posse. Tooby shore, a great big man like you ain't afeard fer ter face a little bit er law."
Abe Hightower hesitated a moment, and then went into the house. In a few minutes he issued forth and went out to the gate where the sheriff was. The faces of the two men were a study. Neither betrayed any emotion nor alluded to the warrant. The sheriff asked after the "crap"; and Abe told him it was "middlin' peart," and asked him to go into the house and make himself at home until the horse could be saddled. After a while the two rode away. Once during the ride Abe said:
"I'm mighty glad it wa'n't that feller what run ag'in' you last fall, Dave."
"Why?" asked the sheriff.
"Bekaze I'd 'a' plugged him, certain an' shore," said Abe.
"Well," said the sheriff, laughing, "I wuz a-wishin' mighty hard thes about that time that the t'other feller had got 'lected."
The warrant amounted to nothing, and Abe was soon at home with his family; but it suited his high-spirited daughter to twit him occasionally because of his tame surrender to the sheriff, and it suited Dave to treat the matter good-humoredly.
Abe Hightower took his way down the mountain; and about two miles from his house, as the road ran, he met the stranger who had attracted Babe's attention. He was a handsome young fellow, and he was riding a handsome horse—a gray, that was evidently used to sleeping in a stable where there was plenty of feed in the trough.
The rider also had a well-fed appearance. He sat his horse somewhat jauntily, and there was a jocund expression in his features very pleasing to behold. He drew rein as he saw Abe, and gave a military salute in a careless, offhand way that was in strict keeping with his appearance.
"Good morning, sir," he said.
"Howdy?" said Abe.
"Fine day this."
"Well, what little I've saw of it is purty tollerbul."
The young fellow laughed, and his laughter was worth hearing. It had the ring of youth in it.
"Do you chance to know a Mr. Hightower?" he asked, throwing a leg over the pommel of the saddle.
"Do he live anywheres aroun' in these parts?" Abe inquired.
"So I'm told."
"Well, the reason I ast," said Abe, leaning his rifle against a tree, "is bekaze they mought be more'n one Hightower runnin' loose."
"You don't know him, then?"
"I know one on 'em. Any business wi' him?"
"Well, yes—a little. I was told he lived on this road. How far is his house?"
"Well, I'll tell you"—Abe took off his hat and scratched his head—"some folks mought take a notion hit wuz a long ways off, an' then, ag'in, yuther folks mought take a notion that hit wuz lots nigher. Hit's accordin' to the way you look at it."
"Is Mr. Hightower at home?" inquired the stranger, regarding Abe with some curiosity.
"Well," said Abe cautiously, "I don't reckon he's right slam bang at home, but I lay he ain't fur off."
"If you happen to see him, pray tell him there's a gentleman at his house who would like very much to see him."
"Well, I tell you what, mister," said Abe, speaking very slowly. "You're a mighty nice young feller—anybody kin shet the'r eyes and see that—but folks 'roun' here is mighty kuse; they is that away. Ef I was you, I'd thes turn right 'roun' in my tracks 'n' let that ar Mister Hightower alone. I wouldn't pester wi' 'im. He hain't no fitten company fer you."
"Oh, but I must see him," said the stranger. "I have business with him. Why, they told me down in the valley that Hightower, in many respects, is the best man in the county."
Abe smiled for the first time. It was the ghost of a smile.
"Shoo!" he exclaimed. "They don't know him down thar nigh as good as he's know'd up here. An' that hain't all. Thish yer Mister Hightower you er talkin' about is got a mighty bad case of measles at his house. You'd be ableedze to ketch 'em ef you went thar."
"I've had the measles," said the stranger.
"But these here measles," persisted Abe, half shutting his eyes and gazing at the young man steadily, "kin be cotched twicet. Thayer wuss 'n the smallpox—lots wuss."
"My dear sir, what do you mean?" the young man inquired, observing the significant emphasis of the mountaineer's language.
"Hit's thes like I tell you," said Abe. "Looks like folks has mighty bad luck when they go a-rippitin' hether an' yan on the mounting. It hain't been sech a monst'us long time sense one er them revenue fellers come a-paradin' up thish yer same road, a-makin' inquirements fer Hightower. He cotch the measles; bless you, he took an' cotch 'em by the time he got in hailin' distance of Hightower's, an' he had to be toted down. I disremember his name, but he wuz a mighty nice-lookin' young feller, peart an' soople, an' thes about your size an' weight."
"It was no doubt a great pity about the revenue chap," said the young man sarcastically.
"Lor', yes!" exclaimed Abe seriously; "lots er nice folks must 'a' cried about that man!"
"Well," said the other, smiling, "I must see Hightower. I guess he's a nicer man than his neighbors think he is."
"Shoo!" said Abe, "he hain't a bit nicer'n what I am, an' I lay he hain't no purtier. What mought be your name, mister?"
"My name is Chichester, and I'm buying land for some Boston people. I want to buy some land right on this mountain if I can get it cheap enough."
"Jesso," said Abe, "but wharbouts in thar do Hightower come in?"
"Oh, he knows all about the mountain, and I want to ask his advice and get his opinions," said Chichester.
Something about Mr. Chichester seemed to attract Abe Hightower. Perhaps it was the young fellow's fresh, handsome appearance; perhaps it was his free-and-easy attitude, suggestive of the commercial tourist, that met the approbation of the mountaineer. At any rate, Abe smiled upon the young man in a fatherly way and said: "'Twixt you an' me an' yon pine, you hain't got no furder to go fer to strike up wi' Hightower. I'm the man you er atter."
Chichester regarded him with some degree of amazement.
"My dear sir," he exclaimed, "why should you desire to play the sphinx?"
"Spinks?" said Abe, with something like a grimace; "the Spinks famerly lived furder up the mounting, but they er done bin weeded out by the revenue men too long ago to talk about. The ole man's in jail in Atlanty er some'rs else, the boys is done run'd off, an' the gal's a trollop. No Spinks in mine, cap', ef you please!"
Chichester laughed at the other's earnestness. He mistook it for drollery.
"I let you know, cap'," Abe went on, "you can't be boss er your own doin's an' give ever' passin' man your name."
"Well, I'm very glad to meet you," said Chichester heartily; "I'll have a good deal of business in this neighborhood first and last, and I'm told there isn't anything worth knowing about the mountain that you don't know."
"That kind er talk," Abe replied, "kin be run in the groun', yit I hain't a-denyin' but what I've got a kind er speakin' acquaintance wi' the neighborhood whar I'm a-livin' at. Ef you er huntin' my house, thes drive right on. I'll be thar ag'in you git thar."
Chichester found a very cordial welcome awaiting him when he arrived at Hightower's house. Even the dogs were friendly, and the big cat came out from its hiding-place to rub against his legs as he sat on the little porch.
"By the time you rest your face an' han's," said Abe, "I reckon breakfast'll be ready."
Chichester, who was anxious to give no trouble, explained that he had had a cup of coffee at Peevy's before starting up the mountain. He said, moreover, that the mountain was so bracing that he felt as if he could fast a week and still fatten.
"Well, sir," Abe remarked, "hit's mighty little we er got to offer, an' that little's mighty common, but, sech as 'tis, you er more'n welcome. Hit's diffunt wi' me when the mornin' air blows at me. Hit makes me wanter nibble at somepin'. I dunner whar you come from, an' I ain't makin' no inquirements, but down in these parts you can't spat a man harder betwixt the eyes than to set back an' not break bread wi' 'im."
Mr. Chichester had been warned not to wound the hospitality of the simple people among whom he was going, and he was quick to perceive that his refusal to "break bread" with the Hightowers would be taken too seriously. Whereupon, he made a most substantial apology—an apology that took the shape of a ravenous appetite, and did more than justice to Mrs. Hightower's fried chicken, crisp biscuits, and genuine coffee. Mr. Chichester also made himself as agreeable as he knew how, and he was so pleased with the impression he made that he, on his side, admitted to himself that the Hightowers were charmingly quaint, especially the shy girl of whom he caught a brief glimpse now and then as she handed her mother fresh supplies of chicken and biscuits.
There was nothing mysterious connected with the visit of Mr. Chichester to Lost Mountain. He was the agent of a company of Boston capitalists who were anxious to invest money in Georgia marble quarries, and Chichester was on Lost Mountain for the purpose of discovering the marble beds that had been said by some to exist there. He had the versatility of a modern young man, being something of a civil engineer and something of a geologist; in fine, he was one of the many "general utility" men that improved methods enable the high schools and colleges to turn out. He was in the habit of making himself agreeable wherever he went, but behind his levity and general good-humor there was a good deal of seriousness and firmness of purpose.
He talked with great freedom to the Hightowers, giving a sort of commercial coloring, so to speak, to the plans of his company with respect to land investments on Lost Mountain; but he said nothing about his quest for marble.
"The Lord send they won't be atter fetchin' the railroad kyars among us," said Grandsir Hightower fervently.
"Well, sir," said Chichester, "there isn't much danger."
"Now, I dunno 'bout that," said the old man querulously, "I dunno 'bout that. They're gittin' so these days they'll whirl in an' do e'enamost anything what you don't want 'em to do. I kin stan' out thar in the hoss-lot any cle'r day an' see the smoke er their ingines, an' sometimes hit looks like I kin hear 'em snort an' cough. They er plenty nigh enough. The Lord send they won't fetch 'em no nigher. Fum Giner'l Jackson's time plump tell now, they ere bin a-fetchin' destruction to the country. You'll see it. I mayn't see it myself, but you'll see it. Fust hit was Giner'l Jackson an' the bank, an' now hit's the railroad kyars. You'll see it!"
"And yet," said Chichester, turning toward the old man, as Hope might beam benignantly on the Past, "everybody and everything seems to be getting along very well. I think the only thing necessary now is to invent something or other to keep the cinders out of a man's eyes when he rides on the railroads."
"Don't let 'em fool you," said the old man earnestly. "Ever'thing's in a tangle, an' ther hain't no Whig party for to ontangle it. Giner'l Jackson an' the cussid bank is what done it."
Just then Miss Babe came out on the little porch, and seated herself on the bench that ran across one end. "Cap'," said Abe, with some show of embarrassment, as if not knowing how to get through a necessary ceremony, "this is my gal, Babe. She's the oldest and the youngest. I'm name' Abe an' she's name' Babe, sort er rimin' like."
The unaffected shyness of the young girl was pleasant to behold, and if it did not heighten her beauty, it certainly did not detract from it. It was a shyness in which there was not an awkward element, for Babe had the grace of youth and beauty, and conscious independence animated all her movements.
"'Ceppin' me an' the ole 'oman," said Abe, "Babe is the best-lookin' one er the famerly."
The girl reddened a little, and laughed lightly with the air of one who is accustomed to give and take jokes, but said nothing.
"I heard of Miss Babe last night," said Chichester, "and I've got a message for her."
"Wait!" exclaimed Abe triumphantly; "I'll bet a hoss I kin call the name 'thout movin' out'n my cheer. Hold on!" he continued. "I'll bet another hoss I kin relate the message word for word."
Babe blushed violently, but laughed good-humoredly. Chichester adjusted himself at once to this unexpected informality, and allowed himself to become involved in it.
"Come, now!" he cried, "I'll take the bet."
"I declare!" said Mrs. Hightower, laughing, "you all oughtn' to pester Babe that away."
"Wait!" said Abe. "The name er the man what sont the word is Tuck Peevy, an' when he know'd you was a-comin' here, he sort er sidled up an' ast you for to please be so good as to tell Miss Babe he'd drap in nex' Sunday, an' see what her mammy is a-gwine ter have for dinner."
"Well, I have won the bet," said Chichester. "Mr. Peevy simply asked me to tell Miss Babe that there would be a singing at Philadelphia camp-ground Sunday. I hardly know what to do with two horses."
"Maybe you'll feel better," said Abe, "when somebody tells you that my hoss is a mule. Well, well, well!" he went on. "Tuck didn't say he was comin', but I be boun' he comes, an' more'n that, I be boun' a whole passel er gals an' boys'll foller Babe home."
"In giner'lly," said Grandsir Hightower, "I hate for to make remarks 'bout folks when they hain't settin' whar they kin hear me, but that ar Tuck Peevy is got a mighty bad eye. I hearn 'im a-quollin' wi' one er them Simmons boys las' Sunday gone wuz a week, an' I tell you he's got the Ole Boy in 'im. An' his appetite's wuss'n his eye."
"Well," said Mrs. Hightower, "nobody 'roun' here don't begrudge him his vittles, I reckon."
"Oh, by no means—by no manner er means," said the old man, suddenly remembering the presence of Chichester. "Yit they oughter be reason in all things; that's what I say—reason in all things, espeshually when hit comes to gormandizin'."
The evident seriousness of the old man was very comical. He seemed to be possessed by the unreasonable economy that not infrequently seizes on old age.
"They hain't no begrudgin' 'roun' here," he went on. "Lord! ef I'd 'a' bin a-begrudgin' I'd 'a' thes natchally bin e't up wi' begrudges. What wer' the word the poor creetur sent to Babe?"
Chichester repeated the brief and apparently uninteresting message, and Grandsir Hightower groaned dismally.
"I dunner what sot him so ag'in' Tuck Peevy," said Abe, laughing. "Tuck's e'en about the peartest chap in the settlement, an' a mighty handy man, put him whar you will."
"Why, Aberham!" exclaimed the old man, "you go on like a man what's done gone an' took leave of his sev'm senses. You dunner what sot me ag'in' the poor creetur? Why, time an' time ag'in I've tol' you it's his ongodly hankerin' atter the flesh-pots. The Bible's ag'in' it, an' I'm ag'in' it. Wharbouts is it put down that a man is ever foun' grace in the cubberd?"
"Well, I lay a man that works is boun' ter eat," said Abe.
"Oh, I hain't no 'count—I can't work," said the old man, his wrath, which had been wrought to a high pitch, suddenly taking the shape of plaintive humility. "Yit 'tain't for long. I'll soon be out'n the way, Aberham."
"Shoo!" said Abe, placing his hand affectionately on the old man's shoulder. "You er mighty nigh as spry as a kitten. Babe, honey, fill your grandsir's pipe. He's a-missin' his mornin' smoke."
Soothed by his pipe, the old man seemed to forget the existence of Tuck Peevy, and his name came up for discussion no more.
But Chichester, being a man of quick perceptions, gathered from the animosity of the old man, and the rather uneasy attitude of Miss Babe, that the discussion of Peevy's appetite had its origin in the lover-like attentions which he had been paying to the girl. Certainly Peevy was excusable, and if his attentions had been favorably received, he was to be congratulated, Chichester thought; for in all that region it would have been difficult to find a lovelier specimen of budding womanhood than the young girl who had striven so unsuccessfully to hide her embarrassment as her grandfather proceeded, with the merciless recklessness of age, to criticize Peevy's strength and weakness as a trencherman.
As Chichester had occasion to discover afterward, Peevy had his peculiarities; but he did not seem to be greatly different from other young men to be found in that region. One of his peculiarities was that he never argued about anything. He had opinions on a great many subjects, but his reasons for holding his opinions he kept to himself. The arguments of those who held contrary views he would listen to with great patience, even with interest; but his only reply would be a slow, irritating smile and a shake of the head. Peevy was homely, but there was nothing repulsive about his homeliness. He was tall and somewhat angular; he was sallow; he had high cheek-bones, and small eyes that seemed to be as alert and as watchful as those of a ferret; and he was slow and deliberate in all his movements, taking time to digest and consider his thoughts before replying to the simplest question, and even then his reply was apt to be evasive. But he was good-humored and obliging, and, consequently, was well thought of by his neighbors and acquaintances.
There was one subject in regard to which he made no concealment, and that was his admiration for Miss Babe Hightower. So far as Peevy was concerned, she was the one woman in the world. His love for her was a passion at once patient, hopeful, and innocent. He displayed his devotion less in words than in his attitude; and so successful had he been that it was generally understood that by camp-meeting time Miss Babe Hightower would be Mrs. Tuck Peevy. That is to say, it was understood by all except Grandsir Hightower, who was apt to chuckle sarcastically when the subject was broached.
"They hain't arry livin' man," he would say, "what's ever seed anybody wi' them kind er eyes settled down an' married. No, sirs! Hit's the vittles Tuck Peevy's atter. Why, bless your soul an' body! he thes natchally dribbles at the mouth when he gits a whiff from the dinner-pot."
Certainly no one would have supposed that Tuck Peevy ever had a sentimental emotion or a romantic notion, but Grandsir Hightower did him great injustice. Behind his careless serenity he was exceedingly sensitive. It is true he was a man difficult to arouse; but he was what his friends called "a mighty tetchy man" on some subjects, and one of these subjects was Babe. Another was the revenue men. It was generally supposed by Peevy's acquaintances on Lost Mountain that he had a moonshine apparatus over on Sweetwater; but this supposition was the result, doubtless, of his well-known prejudice against the deputies sent out to enforce the revenue laws.
It had been the intention of Chichester to remain only a few days in that neighborhood; but the Hightowers were so hospitably inclined, and the outcroppings of minerals so interesting, that his stay was somewhat prolonged. Naturally, he saw a good deal of Peevy, who knew all about the mountain, and who was frequently able to go with him on his little excursions when Abe Hightower was otherwise engaged. Naturally enough, too, Chichester saw a great deal of Babe. He was interested in her because she was young and beautiful, and because of her quaint individuality. She was not only unconventional, but charmingly so. Her crudeness and her ignorance seemed to be merely phases of originality.
Chichester's interest in Babe was that of a studiously courteous and deferent observer, but it was jealously noted and resented by Tuck Peevy. The result of this was not at first apparent. For a time Peevy kept his jealous suggestions to himself, but he found it impossible to conceal their effect. Gradually, he held himself aloof, and finally made it a point to avoid Chichester altogether. For a time Babe made the most of her lover's jealousy. After the manner of her sex, she was secretly delighted to discover that he was furious at the thought that she might inadvertently have cast a little bit of a smile at Mr. Chichester; and on several occasions she heartily enjoyed Peevy's angry suspicions. But after a while she grew tired of such inconsistent and foolish manifestations. They made her unhappy, and she was too vigorous and too practical to submit to unhappiness with that degree of humility which her more cultivated sisters sometimes exhibit. One Sunday afternoon, knowing Chichester to be away, Tuck Peevy sauntered carelessly into Hightower's yard, and seated himself on the steps of the little porch. It was his first visit for several days, and Babe received him with an air of subdued coolness and indifference that did credit to her sex.
"Wharbouts is your fine gent this mornin'?" inquired Peevy, after a while.
"Wharbouts is who?"
"Your fine gent wi' the sto'-clo'es on."
"I reckon you mean Cap'n Chichester, don't you?" inquired Babe innocently.
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed Peevy; "he's the chap I'm a-making my inquirements atter."
"He's over on Sweetwater, I reckon. Leastways thar's whar he started to go."
"On Sweetwater. Oh, yes!" Peevy paused and ran his long slim fingers through his thin straight hair. "I'm mighty much afeard," he went on after a pause, "that that fine gent o' yourn is a-gwine ter turn out for to be a snake. That's what I'm afeard un."
"Well," said Babe, with irritating coolness, "he don't do any of his sneakin' aroun' here. Ef he sneaks, he goes some'ers else to sneak. He don't hang aroun' an' watch his chance to drap in an' pay his calls. I reckon he'd walk right in at the gate thar ef he know'd the Gov'ner er the State wuz a-settin' here. I'm mighty glad I hain't saw none er his sneakin'."
Peevy writhed under this comment on his own actions, but said nothing in reply.
"You don't come to see folks like you useter," said Babe, softening a little. "I reckon you er mighty busy down thar wi' your craps."
Peevy smiled until he showed his yellow teeth. It was not intended to be a pleasant smile.
"I reckon I come lots more'n I'm wanted," he replied. "I hain't got much sense," he went on, "but I got a leetle bit, an' I know when my room's wuth more'n my comp'ny."
"Your hints has got more wings'n stings," said Babe. "But ef I had in my min' what you er got in yourn—"
"Don't say the word, Babe!" exclaimed Peevy, for the first time fixing his restless eyes on her face. "Don't!"
"Yes, I'll say it," said Babe solemnly. "I oughter 'a' said it a long time ago when you wuz a-cuttin' up your capers bekaze Phli Varnadoe wuz a-comin' here to see Pap. I oughter 'a' said it then, but I'll say it now, right pine-blank. Ef I had in my min' what you er got in yourn, I wouldn't never darken this door no more."
Peevy rose, and walked up and down the porch. He was deeply moved, but his face showed his emotion only by a slight increase of sallowness. Finally he paused, looking at Babe.
"I lay you'd be mighty glad ef I didn't come no more," he said, with a half smile. "I reckon it kinder rankles you for to see old Tuck Peevy a-hangin' roun' when the t'other feller's in sight." Babe's only reply was a scornful toss of the head.
"Oh, yes!" Peevy went on, "hit rankles you might'ly; yit I lay it won't rankle you so much atter your daddy is took an' jerked off to Atlanty. I tell you, Babe, that ar man is one er the revenues—they hain't no two ways about that."
Babe regarded her angry lover seriously.
"Hit ain't no wonder you make up your min' ag'in' him when you er done made it up ag'in' me. I know in reason they must be somep'n 'nother wrong when a great big grown man kin work hisself up to holdin' spite. Goodness knows, I wish you wuz like you useter be when I fust know'd you."
Peevy's sallow face flushed a little at the remembrance of those pleasant, peaceful days; but, somehow, the memory of them had the effect of intensifying his jealous mood.
"'Tain't me that's changed aroun'," he exclaimed passionately, "an' 'tain't the days nuther. Hit's you—you! An' that fine gent that's a hanging roun' here is the 'casion of it. Ever'whar I go, hit's the talk. Babe, you know you er lovin' that man!"
Peevy was wide of the mark, but the accusation was so suddenly and so bluntly made that it brought the blood to Babe's face—a tremulous flush that made her fairly radiant for a moment. Undoubtedly Mr. Chichester had played a very pleasing part in her youthful imagination, but never for an instant had he superseded the homely figure of Tuck Peevy. The knowledge that she was blushing gave Babe an excuse for indignation that women are quick to take advantage of. She was so angry, indeed, that she made another mistake.
"Why, Tuck Peevy!" she cried, "you shorely must be crazy. He wouldn't wipe his feet on sech as me!"
"No," said Peevy, "I 'lowed he wouldn't, an' I 'lowed as how you wouldn't wipe your feet on me." He paused a moment, still smiling his peculiar smile. "Hit's a long ways down to Peevy, ain't it?"
"You er doin' all the belittlin'," said Babe.
"Oh, no, Babe! Ever'thing's changed. Why, even them dogs barks atter me. Ever'thing's turned wrong-sud-outerds. An' you er changed wuss'n all."
"Well, you don't reckon I'm a-gwine ter run out'n the gate thar an' fling myself at you, do you?" exclaimed Babe.
"No, I don't. I've thes come to-day for to git a cle'r understan'in'." He hesitated a moment and then went on: "Babe, will you marry me to-morrow?" He asked the question with more eagerness than he had yet displayed.
"No, I won't!" exclaimed Babe, "ner the nex' day nuther. The man I marry'll have a lots better opinion of me than what you er got."
Babe was very indignant, but she paused to see what effect her words would have. Peevy rubbed his hands nervously together, but he made no response. His serenity was more puzzling than that of the mountain. He still smiled vaguely, but it was not a pleasing smile. He looked hard at Babe for a moment, and then down at his clumsy feet. His agitation was manifest, but it did not take the shape of words. In the trees overhead two jays were quarreling with a catbird, and in the upper air a bee-martin was fiercely pursuing a sparrow-hawk.
"Well," he said, after a while, "I reckon I better be gwine."
"Wait till your hurry's over," said Babe, in a gentler tone.
Peevy made no reply, but passed out into the road and disappeared down the mountain. Babe followed him to the gate, and stood looking after him; but he turned his head neither to the right nor to the left, and in a little while she went into the house with her head bent upon her bosom. She was weeping. Grandsir Hightower, who had shuffled out on the porch to sun himself, stared at the girl with amazement.
"Why, honey!" he exclaimed, "what upon the top side er the yeth ails you?"
"Tuck has gone home mad, an' he won't never come back no more," she cried.
"What's the matter wi' 'im?"
"Oh, he's thes mad along er me."
"Well, well, well!" exclaimed the old man, fumbling feebly in his pockets for his red bandanna handkerchief, "what kind of a come-off is this? Did you ast him to stay to dinner, honey?"
"No—no; he didn't gimme a chance."
"I 'lowed you didn't," exclaimed Grandsir Hightower triumphantly. "I thes natchally 'lowed you didn't. That's what riled 'im. An' now he'll go off an' vilify you. Well, well, well! he's missed his dinner! The fust time in many's the long day. Watch 'im, Babe! Watch 'im, honey! The Ole Boy's in 'im. I know 'im; I've kep' my two eyes on 'im. For a mess er turnip-greens an' dumperlin's that man 'u'd do murder." The old man paused and looked all around, as if by that means to dissipate a suspicion that he was dreaming. "An' so Tuck missed his dinner! Tooby shore—tooby shore!"
"Oh, hit ain't that," cried Babe; "he's jealous of Cap'n Chichester."
"Why, the good Lord, honey! what makes you run on that way?"
"He tol' me so," said Babe.
"Jealous!" exclaimed Grandsir Hightower, "jealous er that young feller! Merciful powers, honey! he's a-begrudgin' 'im the vittles what he eats. I know'd it the minnit I seed 'im come a-sa'nterin' in the yard. Lord, Lord! I wish in my soul the poor creetur could git a chance at one er them ar big Whig barbecues what they useter have."
But there was small consolation in all this for Babe; and she went into the house, where her forlorn appearance attracted the attention of her mother. "Why, Babe! what in the worl'!" exclaimed this practical woman, dropping her work in amazement. "What in the name er sense ails you?" Babe had no hesitation in telling her mother the facts.
"Well, my goodness!" was Mrs. Hightower's comment, "I wouldn't go aroun' whinin' about it, ef I wuz you—that I wouldn't. Nobody never ketched me whinin' 'roun' atter your pappy 'fore we wuz married, an' he wuz lots purtier than what Tuck Peevy is. When your pappy got tetchy, I thes says to myself, s'I: 'Ef I'm wuth havin', I'm wuth scramblin' atter;' an' ef your pappy hadn't 'a' scrambled an' scuffled 'roun' he wouldn't 'a' got me nuther, ef I do up an' say it myself. I'd a heap druther see you fillin' them slays an' a-fixin' up for to weave your pappy some shirts, than to see you a-whinin' 'roun' atter any chap on the top side er the yeth, let 'lone Tuck Peevy."
There was little consolation even in this, but Babe went about her simple duties with some show of spirit; and when her father and Chichester returned from their trip on Sweetwater, it would have required a sharp eye to discover that Babe regarded herself as "wearing the green willow." For a few days she avoided Chichester, as if to prove her loyalty to Peevy; but as Peevy was not present to approve her conduct or to take advantage of it, she soon grew tired of playing an unnecessary part. Peevy persisted in staying away; and the result was that Babe's anger—a healthy quality in a young girl—got the better of her grief. Then wonder took the place of anger; but behind it all was the hope that before many days Peevy would saunter into the house, armed with his inscrutable smile, and inquire, as he had done a hundred times before, how long before dinner would be ready. This theory was held by Grandsir Hightower, but, as it was a very plausible one, Babe adopted it as her own.
Meanwhile, it is not to be supposed that two lovers, one sulking and the other sighing, had any influence on the season. The spring had made some delay in the valley before taking complete possession of the mountain, but this delay was not significant. Even on the mountain, the days began to suggest the ardor of summer. The air was alternately warm and hazy, and crisp and clear. One day Kenesaw would cast aside its atmospheric trappings, and appear to lie within speaking distance of Hightower's door; the next, it would withdraw behind its blue veil, and seem far enough away to belong to another world. On Hightower's farm the corn was high enough to whet its green sabres against the wind. One evening Chichester, Hightower, and Babe sat on the little porch with their faces turned toward Kenesaw. They had been watching a line of blue smoke on the mountain in the distance; and, as the twilight deepened into dusk, they saw that the summit of Kenesaw was crowned by a thin fringe of fire. As the darkness gathered, the bright belt of flame projected against the vast expanse of night seemed to belong to the vision of St. John.
"It looks like a picture out of the Bible," suggested Chichester somewhat vaguely.
"It's wuss'n that, I reckon," said Abe. "Some un's a-losin' a mighty sight of fencin'; an' timber's timber these days, lemme tell you."
"Maybe someun's a-burnin' bresh," said Babe.
"Bless you! they don't pile bresh in a streak a mile long," said Abe.
The thin line of fire crept along slowly, and the people on the little porch sat and watched it. Occasionally it would crawl to the top of a dead pine, and leave a fiery signal flaming in the air.
"What is the matter with Peevy?" asked Chichester. "I met him on the mountain the other day, and he seemed not to know me."
"He don't know anybody aroun' here," said Babe with a sigh.
"Hit's thes some er his an' Babe's capers," Hightower remarked with a laugh. "They er bin a-cuttin' up this away now gwine on two year'. I reckon ag'in' camp-meetin' time Tuck'll drap in an' make hisself know'd. Gals and boys is mighty funny wi' the'r gwines-on."
After a little, Abe went into the house, and left the young people to watch the fiery procession on Kenesaw.
"The next time I see Peevy," said Chichester gallantly, "I'll take him by the sleeve, and show him the road to Beauty's bower."
"Well, you nee'nter pester wi' 'im on account of me," said Babe. Chichester laughed. The fact that so handsome a girl as Babe should deliberately fall in love with so lank and ungainly a person as Tuck Peevy seemed to him to be one of the problems that philosophers ought to concern themselves with; but, from his point of view, the fact that Babe had not gradually faded away, according to the approved rules of romance, was entirely creditable to human nature on the mountain. A candle, burning in the room that Chichester occupied, shone through the window faintly, and fell on Babe, while Chichester sat in the shadow. As they were talking, a mocking-bird in the apple trees awoke, and poured into the ear of night a flood of delicious melody. Hearing this, Babe seized Chichester's hat, and placed it on her head.
"There must be some omen in that," said Chichester.
"They say," said Babe, laughing merrily, "that ef a gal puts on a man's hat when she hears a mocker sing at night, she'll get married that year an' do well."
"Well, I'm sorry I haven't got a bonnet to put on," exclaimed Chichester.
"Oh, it don't work that away!" cried Babe.
The mocking-bird continued to sing, and finally brought its concert to a close by giving a most marvelous imitation of the liquid, silvery chimes of the wood-thrush.
There was a silence for one brief moment. Then there was a red flash under the apple trees followed by the sharp crack of a rifle. There was another brief moment of silence, and then the young girl sighed softly, leaned forward, and fell from her chair.
"What's this?" cried Abe, coming to the door.
"The Lord only knows!" exclaimed Chichester. "Look at your daughter!"
Abe stepped forward, and touched the girl on the shoulder. Then he shook her gently, as he had a thousand times when rousing her from sleep.
"Babe! git up! Git up, honey, an' go in the house. You ought to 'a' been abed long ago. Git up honey." Chichester stood like one paralyzed. For the moment, he was incapable of either speech or action.
"I know what sh'e atter," said Abe tenderly. "You wouldn't believe it skacely, but this yer great big chunk of a gal wants her ole pappy to pick her up an' tote her thes like he useter when she was er little bit of a scrap."
"I think she has been shot," said Chichester. To his own ears his voice seemed to be the voice of some other man.
"Shot!" exclaimed Abe. "Why, who's a-gwine to shoot Babe? Lord, Cap'n! you dunner nothin' 'tall 'bout Babe ef you talk that away.—Come on, honey." With that Abe lifted his child in his arms, and carried her into the house. Chichester followed. All his faculties were benumbed, and he seemed to be walking in a dream. It seemed that no such horrible confusion as that by which he was surrounded could have the remotest relation to reality.
Nevertheless, it did not add to his surprise and consternation to find, when Abe had placed the girl on her bed, that she was dead. A little red spot on her forehead, half-hidden by the glossy curling hair, showed that whoever held the rifle aimed it well.
"Why, honey," said Abe, wiping away the slight blood-stain that showed itself, "you struck your head a'in' a nail. Git up! you oughtn't to be a-gwine on this away before comp'ny."
"I tell you she is dead!" cried Chichester. "She has been murdered!" The girl's mother had already realized this fact, and her tearless grief was something pitiful to behold. The gray-haired grandfather had also realized it.
"I'd druther see her a-lyin' thar dead," he exclaimed, raising his weak and trembling hands heavenward, "than to see her Tuck Peevy's wife."
"Why, gentermen!" exclaimed Abe, "how kin she be dead? I oughter know my own gal, I reckon. Many's an' many's the time she's worried me, a-playin' 'possum, an' many's an' many's the time has I sot by her waitin' tell she let on to wake up. Don't you all pester wi' her. She'll wake up therreckly."
At this juncture Tuck Peevy walked into the room. There was a strange glitter in his eyes, a new energy in his movements. Chichester sprang at him, seized him by the throat, and dragged him to the bedside.
"You cowardly, skulking murderer!" he exclaimed, "see what you have done!"
Peevy's sallow face grew ashen. He seemed to shrink and collapse under Chichester's hand. His breath came thick and short. His long, bony fingers clutched nervously at his clothes.
"I aimed at the hat!" he exclaimed huskily.
He would have leaned over the girl, but Chichester flung him away from the bedside, and he sank down in a corner, moaning and shaking. Abe took no notice of Peevy's entrance, and paid no attention to the crouching figure mumbling in the corner, except, perhaps, so far as he seemed to recognize in Chichester's attack on Peevy a somewhat vigorous protest against his own theory; for, when there was comparative quiet in the room, Hightower raised himself, and exclaimed, in a tone that showed both impatience and excitement:
"Why, great God A'mighty, gentermen, don't go on that way! They hain't no harm done. Thes let us alone. Me an' Babe's all right. She's bin a-playin' this away ev'ry sence she wuz a little bit of a gal. Don't less make her mad, gentermen, bekaze ef we do she'll take plum tell day atter to-morrer for to come 'roun' right."
Looking closely at Hightower, Chichester could see that his face was colorless. His eyes were sunken, but shone with a peculiar brilliancy, and great beads of perspiration stood on his forehead. His whole appearance was that of a man distraught. Here was another tragedy!
Seeking a momentary escape from the confusion and perplexity into which he had been plunged by the horrible events of the night, Chichester passed out into the yard, and stood bareheaded in the cool wind that was faintly stirring among the trees. The stars shone remote and tranquil, and the serenity of the mountain, the awful silence that seemed to be, not the absence of sound, but the presence of some spiritual entity, gave assurance of peace. Out there, in the cold air, or in the wide skies, or in the vast gulf of night, there was nothing to suggest either pity or compassion—only the mysterious tranquillity of nature.
This was the end, so far as Chichester knew. He never entered the Hightower house again. Something prompted him to saddle his horse and ride down the mountain. The tragedy and its attendant troubles were never reported in the newspapers. The peace of the mountain remained undisturbed, its silence unbroken.
But should Chichester, who at last accounts was surveying a line of railway in Mexico, ever return to Lost Mountain, he would find Tuck Peevy a gaunt and shrunken creature, working on the Hightower farm, and managing such of its small affairs as call for management. Sometimes, when the day's work is over, and Peevy sits at the fireside saying nothing, Abe Hightower will raise a paralytic hand, and cry out as loud as he can that it's almost time for Babe to quit playing 'possum. At such times we may be sure that, so far as Peevy is concerned, there is still trouble on Lost Mountain.T