THE November wind rioted up the Jumping Creek Draft between the mountains, and flung itself full face against George Hedrick’s little crossroads’ store. Hedrick pulled his stovedrafts wider.

‘It ’s one er them days,’he said, ‘when I wished I had me er wife to say if I was ter put on my flannels er not.’

The combination of Saturday afternoon and bad weather had provided the storekeeper with a more than usually large audience, — a thing in which his soul delighted.

‘Yes, sir,’ he continued, clinking a couple of dead counters together, and regarding his adversary, Orin Snyder, across the checker-board, with alert, bright eyes, ‘there’s er whole heap er things er wife is handy fer. She can tell yer almost d’rectly whether yer late fer dinner er not; whether yer feet ’ll make tracks on the kitchen-floor, and whether yer fav’rite hound’s been suckin’ eggs. Er dog now, he kin do er heap, but there is certain things what only er wife is fit fer.’

He made a quick move among the checker-men, and then sat back to pat his knees, and rumble his feet in a mirthful shuffle of triumph, which was voiced presently by a roar from the spectators as it dawned upon Orin Snyder that his two kings were suddenly and fatally entrapped.

‘Well, I be dogged!’ he cried.

He was a heavily built mountaineer, but rejoiced in a buoyant spirit.

‘Well, set ’em up ergin, George,’ he said; ‘I ain’t beat yit.’

It was here that the door opened suddenly, unexpectedly, and a scrap of a boy stood before them,—a boy perhaps of eight, possibly of ten meagre years. He faced the store’s assembly with perfect lack of self-consciousness, his fearless gray eyes roving over them all with a certain challenge, which was more of question than of defiance, and was wholly young and appealing.

‘Why, howdy, stranger!’ the storekeeper exclaimed, surprise and kindliness in his tone.

The boy nodded, a proud little upward jerk of his dark head.

‘How yer all,’ he responded, with a dignity and poise that was astonishing, considering that the eyes of all the store were upon him, that below his ragged coat there was probably no shirt, and that in spite of the cold he was still barefooted.

‘And what might yer name be, and where der yer come from?’ Hedrick inquired.

‘My name’s Dan Callison, an’ I was raised over in Kaintucky,’ the boy answered .

Adrian Blair laughed suddenly. He was a stalwart young fellow, with a comical, almost whimsical face.

‘Well, they don’t ’pear ter raise fellers any too big over in there,’ he said; ‘er maybe they got tired raisin’ you, an’jest nater’ly quit ’fore ther job was done.’

The boy turned his serious eyes upon the speaker, and seemed to take him into calm but not resentful consideration.

‘ I ain ’t done growin ’ yit,’ he explained simply. ‘And anyhow I ain’t been over in Kaintucky fer er right smart little bit. I been over here in West Virginia, an’ reckon that’s kinder stunted me — you all don’t raise fellers as big here as they do in my state.’

Hedrick slapped his knee in delight. ‘O Lord, Adrian! ’ he cried. ‘ Looks like you got bit that time! Well, set down, stranger, an’ tell us all erbout yerself,’he continued.

With no abatement of his serious dignity, the child slid down into a chair near the door.

‘Oh, pshaw!’ the storekeeper cried; ‘set up ter ther fire, sonny. I bet yer ’most froze; you don’t look like you had on any too warm close, no way.’

A sweep of color went over the small face, and a flash of defiance kindled in the gray eyes.

‘I ain’t cold,’ the boy answered proudly, and kept his seat, in spite of the fact that his lips were blue rather than red, and that his voice had a shiver in it.

The storekeeper rose, and went behind his counter.

’I dunno how it is with ther rest er you all,’he said, ‘but seems like ter me it’s er powerful long time since I eat my dinner, an’ I’m goin’ ter have er little snack er crackers an’ cheese, an’ you fellers better jine in.’

More than one of the men present took up the offer with a hearty, ‘Well, I don’t keer ef I do, George,’ encouraged thereto, perhaps, by the significant look which Hedrick gave them; so that when the turn of the small stranger came, he had the precedence of their acceptance as a cloak for his pride; but even the fierceness of that youthful sentiment could not keep the ravenous gleam altogether out of his eyes, when he received his portion.

Hedrick laid a kind hand on his shoulder.

‘You take my cheer fer er spell, Little Kaintuck,’he said, ‘an’ let me set here an’ cool off. I’m pretty nigh done to er turn.’

So the boy was forced from his chilly seat into the cosy one vacated by the storekeeper; but still his pride kept him from stretching his blue fingers out to the purring stove.

‘An’ where did yer come from last, sonny?’ Orin Snyder inquired.

‘From Charleston,’ the boy answered. ’Er feller down thar put me on ther train, an’ses ter me, “You come up here in Greenbrier County, an’ see if you can’t find you er home fer ther winter.”'

He made the statement simply, and there seemed to be no conscious appeal in it.

‘Ain’t you been ter school none? All my little fellers is goin’ ter school right erlong now.’

The question this time was voiced by Lloyd Johnson. He was lank, serious, and was what might have been called the uneasy conscience of the Draft. To him the world was a cross, or at best merely a resting-place, Heaven, let it be understood, being always his true home.

Dan fixed his serious eyes upon him for a moment, without reply.

‘I went ter school fer er spell onct,’ he said at length, ‘but I quit.’

‘You quit?’ Johnson’s voice was heavy with conscience. ‘Aw, yer ought not ter er done that. What did yer quit fer?’

Again the boy paused, running his eyes over the speaker.

‘I quit,’ he said, ‘’cause ther teacher she had my mammy put in ther lockup.’ Suddenly in the back of the gray eyes there sprang a light that was unboyish and terrible. ‘Would n’t you er quit if you’d er been me?’ he demanded.

The reply was so astonishing, so unlooked-for, that the man was taken aback.

‘Would n’t you?' the boy persisted, his fierce eyes upon him.

‘Why, yes, reckon I would under them circumstances,’Johnson dragged out.

And Adrian Blair laughed savagely under his breath.

‘An’ where’s yer mammy now?’ the storekeeper ventured.

‘She’s dead.’

The boy looked out of the window. The wind sent a scud of cloud-shadows over the shining fields. The whole aspect held a wonderful sense of freedom.

‘She died in ther lock-up,’ he said.

After that there was a little space of awkwardness, broken presently by Orin Snyder.

‘Ain’t yer got no folks?’ he demanded.

To him, son of one large family, and father of another, with a chain of relationship which stretched through the majority of the families of the Draft, and ran up to those on the mountain farms, the possibility of having no folks was a situation poignant with surprise.

‘After my mammy died, I did n’t have nobody,’ the boy said, ‘so I jest lit out fer myself.’

‘An’ you been trampin’ ever since?’

He nodded.

‘What do yer do nights? You don’t allers strike folks ter stay with. I’d think you’d be skeered.'

Dan shook his head. '1 ain’t skeered,’ he said. ‘ If I don’t hit no place ter stay, i jest lights me a big fire an’ sets by hit an’ sings all night, an’ nothin’ don’t never happen.’

His eyes were big and mysterious, and the whole bearing of the child was different from what the Draft knew. It was here that Bob Saunders saw fit to laugh.

‘ Did yer ever know ther beat er that, now! ’ he cried ‘ He jest sings all night! Well I’ll be dogged!’

Bob was the only other child present, — a boy of twelve hearty years who from the first had viewed the interest evinced in the small stranger with increasing jealousy.

The Kentuckian regarded him quietly and apparently with indifference, yet when his opportunity for revenge arrived he did not neglect it.

‘An’ what do yer do when yer gits tired?’ Bob inquired, with swaggering patronage.

‘Why, honey,’ the other returned, speaking as one speaks to a child, ‘when I gits tired I jest sets down an’ rests, like any other man would do. But I reckon if I was you’ — and here his soft drawl was exaggerated slightly — ‘I’d cut me er stick-horse an’ ride it fer er spell.’

The store rocked with the men’s delighted laughter.

Bob leaped to his feet, his face crimson.

‘I’ll learn you to sass me!’ he cried, doubling his fists and dancing round the stove toward the other.

Little Kaintuck rose calmly and put his back against a near-by, sugarbarrel, his attitude one of nochalant defense. Then he spoke, and again his low drawl commanded the attention of even his would-be assailant.

‘Whar I comes from,’ he said, ‘ef two fellers gits ter fightin’ they jest nater’ly slices each other right up, and’—suddenly he flung his shoulders back and leaped for the other’s throat — ‘I’ve er great mind to kill you! ’

The ferocity and suddenness of the onslaught were more than Bob was prepared for. With a howl of sheer terror he scudded for the door, gained it a bare instant before the little pursuing fury at his back, and dashing it open, fled away up the road on panic-winged feet.

For a moment LittleKaintuck watched his retreating figure; then he came back to his seat by the stove, disappointment looking out of his eyes.

‘Well, I’ll be dogged! Bob, he’s a great fighter, now, ain’t he!’ Orin Snyder gasped, heaving great sighs of painful mirth, for his sense of humor always shook the very foundations of his being.

Adrian Blair’s eyes danced. To fight was the breath of his nostrils, was the savor of his existence.

‘Great Day, Little Kaintuck!’ he cried, ‘I jest wished you was er man. You an’ me’d show these fellers what sure ’nough fightin’ is then. Lord,’ he said, doubling his fists regretfully, ’I’d jest like ter lick ther very hide off ’en you.’

Thus he tendered the small stranger the tribute of his highest esteem.

But Lloyd Johnson’s voice struck in heavily.

‘I would n’t like to have one er my little fellers show sech er keen sperrit ter fight,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘ No sir, I certainly would hate ter have er boy er mine so quick with his fists.’

‘Well, yer never will, Lloyd, so that’s one thing need n’t ter worry yer none,’ Hedrick comforted him.

‘That’s so, George, I don’t b’lieve it need, not after the Christian raisin’ I’m givin’ ’em, no sir-ee!’

And ‘ No sir-ee! ’ Hedrick backed him up, with such emphasis that Johnson regarded him a trifle doubtfully.

But now the afternoon was beginning to close in softly in faint lights of gray and brown, and one after another of the men departed.

Orin Snyder got slowly to his feet, and stretched himself with extreme thoroughness.

‘ Well, Little Kaintuck,’he said, ‘ I’d like jest ther finest kind ter have yer come home with me; but it’s the blame truth I don’t know how many kids there is there right this minute; but I’ll make er pint er countin’ of ’em, an’ talk it over with ther woman, an’ if so be there’s room fer one more I’ll give you ther very first chanst at ther job.'

‘I’m much erbliged ter you,’ Little Kaintuck replied, showing his first hint of embarrassment in his gratitude.

At length they were all gone, all, that is, save Adrian Blair. The two men and the little boy sat on in silence. In the remote corners dark shadows wavered back and forth, but the stove burned with a bright and sociable eye.

At length Adrian brought his tiptilted chair down with a crash of decision.

‘Come on, Little Kaintuck,’ he said: ‘it’s time you an’ me was hittin’ ther trail fer home an’ supper.’

The boy’s serious little mouth relaxed into a smile. Evidently this matter-of-fact way of offering a home pleased his fancy.

But George Hedrick cut in quickly.

‘Much erbliged ter you, Ade,’ he said, ‘but reckon Little Kaintuck an’ me’ll set tight an’ eat at home this evenin’.’

‘Well, I’ll be doggoned,’ Adrian said frankly, ‘I ain’t invitin’ you ter supper.’

‘ Well, it’s ther same thing,’ the storekeeper responded calmly, ‘seein’ as me an’ Little Kaintuck is goin’ ter be buddies fer ther winter.’

‘You is!’ Adrian exclaimed. ‘Well, now, I reckon Little Kaintuck hisself may have some word erbout that. Now, then, sonny,’ turning to the boy, ‘it’s fer you ter say — will you come with me or stay with him? My woman’s mighty good ter little strayed things,’ he added as inducement.

The boy regarded them both for a moment without reply. In the faint light from the open stove Adrian’s expression was gay, was debonair and kindly, but on the other’s face was an eagerness of which he himself was hardly aware.

‘I’m much erbliged,’ Little Kaintuck said at length, looking at Adrian, ‘but I ’lowed ter stay with him from ther fust’; and he nodded with calm assurance towards the storekeeper.

‘Ther deuce yer did!’ Adrian exclaimed.

And, ’Well, I’ll be dogged!' Hedrick ejaculated under his breath.

It was a theory of George Hedrick’s that Solomon would never have voiced the wearied sentiment of there being nothing new under the sun if he had had the privilege of keeping a crossroads’ store, in which joyous occupation, Hedrick maintained, ‘new things was allus happenin’.’

Certainly after the advent of Little Kaintuck, this, for him, was more than ever true. The presence of a child in his bachelor establishment was in itself astonishing and unusual enough, but Little Kaintuck himself was astonishing. For long stretches he was like any other boy, and then of a sudden Hedrick would find himself met by some unaccountable streak of pride or sensitiveness that fairly took the man’s breath away, and left him able only to voice his surprise in the all-embracing phrase of the Draft, ‘Well, I’ll be dogged.’

The child was like some little wild animal, which stress of circumstances had driven into human shelter, but which always owned itself, and might at any moment be off with a bound to its native woods. The storekeeper knew this, and knew too how light was his hold upon him, and he would have given much to make the present friendship a permanency.

The winter climbed slowly up the long Christmas hill, to plunge down through January and February to the open stretches of March, when the freed water began to run as it runs only in spring, and when the melting snowdripped musically from the sunlit eaves. And with the first hint of spring Hedrick saw something awaken in Little Kaintuck, — something which he had looked for and dreaded, and which made the boy leave his place by the stove in the evenings, and go restlessly out into the full soft dark.

Once, on a Saturday afternoon, when the spring was well under way, a crowd of uncouth people, men and women, came down from Droop Mountain, and passed the store. Little Kaintuck and Hedrick were seated on the porch in a lull of custom. At sight of the crowd, a spark of excitement leaped in the boy’s eyes.

‘Sang diggers!’ he whispered. ‘ I tramped with er gang er them onct fer er spell,’ he said after a pause, and then fell silent again. But that night at supper he spoke suddenly out of a deep reverie.

‘You been mighty good ter me?’ he said, his remark more in the form of a wistful question, than a statement.

‘Why, I really ain’t done nothin’ much fer you,’ Hedrick returned, and rose in some embarrassment to replenish the biscuit-plate out of the hot black depths of the oven.

But the storekeeper knew well enough that any day now might find Little Kaintuck on the wing. Yet time passed, and still the boy lingered, and the man hugged himself in secret over the triumph of it.

There came at last an afternoon when business called Hedrick away, and Little Kaintuck was left in charge of the store. It was a sunny day, and a growing day; a day of Heaven and of riotous awakened life and the boy sat on the porch, and gave vent to a delicious exultant whistle of no particular tune, and wished that a customer would come to test his skill. But it was a busy day with the Draft people. Time drifted on and still no one came to buy, and presently the boy’s thoughts began to flow together in drowsy confusion, and he slept a little. But of a sudden he was broad awake, startlingly awake. There was a sound in the store at his back, — the whispered, cautious sound of a pushed-open drawer, and then on the instant the sharp alarm of the bell on the till.

Little Kaintuck leaped from his chair and across the threshold. A man was leaning over the counter, his back to the door, his hand in the money-drawer. For an instant the boy paused, gathering himself; then he sprang. Without a word, almost without a sound, he lighted on the intruder’s back.

It was so sudden, so silent, and so mysterious an attack, that the man’s nerve went down before it, and giving a great bound, he let out a wild yell of terror. Yet in the moment that his hands flew up and grasped the small ones at his neck, he realized that it was only a child who held him, and with a wrench he tore the clinging arms and legs free, and swung the boy round in front of him.

’You little devil, you!’ he cried fiercely.

But Little Kaintuck, a biting, scratching, kicking ball of fire, twisted himself away, and with a swoop flung his arms about the other’s legs and brought him crashing to the ground. For a moment the man was stunned, and the boy got in some vicious pommeling; but directly the thief recovered himself, and his fingers gripped the child’s small neck. At that moment, however, a figure appeared in the doorway; strong hands were laid on the man’s own collar, and he was jerked to his feet.

‘Now then! What’s all this erbout?’ Adrian Blair demanded.

The thief turned upon him with an oath.

Adrian stiffened with delight.

‘You’d cuss me, would you!’ he cried, the joy of battle in his face as one hard fist went out toward the other’s jaw like a piston-rod.

But the thief dodged, and springing aside, bolted out of the door and away.

‘Ketch him! ketch him!’ cried Little Kaintuck.

He and Adrian raced for the door together, and arriving at it simultaneously tripped each other up, and both came sprawling to the floor.

‘What der yer mean by gettin’ in my way! ’ the boy cried, recovering his feet, and turning furiously upon Adrian.

‘Well, now, I’ll be switched! Who got in my way I’d jest like ter know,’ Adrian began.

But already Little Kaintuck had shot past him in pursuit of the thief. Outside, however, the empty road and shining landscape laughed at him, and the all-too-near woods had evidently gathered the culprit into their shelter.

Mad with disappointment, the boy flashed back upon Adrian.

‘He’s gone!’ he burst out, panting with anger, ‘he’s gone! An’ he had his hand in ther till — jest right in it! An’ if you had n’t er come in messin’ things up, I’d er had him fixed in ernother pair of seconds!’ He paused, struggling for breath, and shaken by his passion. ‘An’ I ’ll tell yer one thing, Adrian Blair!’ he cried, ‘ther next time you see me in er scrap with er feller, I’ll jest thank you ter keep your fists out er hit!’

‘Well, I’ll be dogged!’ cried Adrian. ‘You’ll thank me ter keep out er your scraps, will you! An’ ef I had n’t er walked in that identical minute, you’d er had that blamed sassy little neck er your’n jest nater’lly wrung off. You don’t erpear ter realize you was bein’ choked ter death.’ He paused, regarding the boy’s passionate little figure. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘er course yer don’t. I jest b’lieve, ’pon my soul, you thought you was chokin’ him! Look erhere, Little Kaintuck,’ he continued seriously, ‘ I dunno but what I’m jest as glad you ain’t growed, ’cause ef you was, I’d jest have ter fight you, an’ hit might so be as I’d git licked myself.’

But later, when Adrian was taking his way homeward, he heard the sound of running feet behind him, and, turning, faced Little Kaintuck. The boy’s cheeks were crimson from his haste, and from something else.

‘Ade,’ he panted, ‘Ade, I’m much erbliged ter you!'

‘Aw, pshaw!’ said Adrian, and walked on again in embarrassment.

That night at supper, Hedrick said suddenly, ‘If ther’s anything out er ther store you want, Buddy, jest say what it is, an’ you shall have it fer the way you lit inter that raskil this ev’nin’.'

The boy looked at him in surprise. Then his face lighted.

‘Was hit anything ter do, sure ’nough?’ he asked. ‘Would hit make up some fer all you done fer me?’

‘Oh, pshaw! hit’s er whole heap more’n that,’ the storekeeper returned. ‘Now, jest say what hit is you want.’

Little Kaintuck was silent for a moment. ‘I don’t want nothin’,’ he said at length.

And the next morning he was gone. On a chair were neatly piled all the things—clothes and the like — that the storekeeper had given him, and the old disreputable suit of his advent had disappeared from the peg where its limp weight had hung all winter.

Hedrick sat heavily down on the side of his bed, and stared for some time at the things on the chair, all things that go to the make-up of a little boy in the Draft. ‘Oh, doggone it,’he sighed to himself. Afterwards he went downstairs, and prepared his solitary breakfast. All day long the sense of loneliness hung over him, clutching him at times with almost a physical grip.

‘Well, yer might er knowed it would er been that away,’ Lloyd Johnson comforted him. ‘I knowed from ther very fust, he wan’t the kind er little feller ter show any gratitude. But,’ he added piously, ‘he’s one er ther Lord’s creatures, so I reckon He must have some use fer him.’

‘Well, if ther Lord kin make any use er some folks’ spindling measly little kids,’ Hedrick returned pointedly, ‘I bet He’ll know what ter do with Little Kaintuck, all right.’

At the end of the day, when Adrian Blair dropped down on the porch-steps, the storekeeper opened his heart to him.

‘I knowed hit was on him,’ he said, ‘ther wantin’ ter light out. I knowed because hit uster be that erway with me when I was er little ole kid. I uster think I wanted ter see what was over acrost one er them furrest way-off blue mountains. It uster come on me mostly when I was grubbin’. Lord, I mind of hit all jest as well, ther kinder black smell er burnt new ground, with ther hot feelin’ er everything, an’ ther little fresh trickle of er branch runnin’ somewheres. An’ seems like I could most hear them way-off blue mountains er hollerin’ ter me. An’ I reckon if I had n’t er had er mammy I thought ther world of, I’d er took my foot in my han’ an’ slid out er this little ole Draft like er greased streak. I uster ache so bad ter light out that I’d jest nater’lly lay down on ther ground an’ cuss ev’ry blamed thing I could lay my eyes to, with ev’ry bad word my tongue could hand me. An’ I reckon too,’ he added, with a desire for the exact truth, ‘Icussed some, ’cause I allers did hate grubbin’ er little ther worst er any of ther jobs they put me at. So’s I knowed all erlong how it was goin’ ter be with Little Kaintuck. But I sorter hoped maybe he’d keer ernough fer me ter stay; an’ when he got so bigeyed an’ restless-like, an ’still he did n’t go, I thought hit was me was keepin’ him,an’ I felt terrible proud; but come ter fin’ out, he was jest waitin’ till he felt he hed me sorter paid off. I wished he had er stayed,’ he said. ‘But I reckon folks what never had no kids er their own, don’t jest know how ter keep ’em,’ he added, a trifle wistfully.

‘Well,’ Adrian said as he rose to go, ‘I’m mighty sorry too he’s lit out. I’ve been lookin’ forred right erlong ter the time when he’d be big ernough fer me ter lick. But maybe,’he added philosophically, ‘it’s all fer ther best, fer gin that time comes, I might be so stiff and staved-up that I could n’t fight him, an’ not bein’ able ter would jest break me all up in ther clear.’

‘I allers did have er nater’al born contempt fer folks as says frogs hollerin’ on summer ev’nin’s makes ’em feel kinder creepy like, but dogged if hit ain’t er lonesome sound,’ the storekeeper soliloquized, left alone on his porch.

Yet lonesome as it was out of doors, the half-light of the store at his back seemed to hold still more dreary possibilities. The sun dropped behind one of the highest peaks of Droop Mountain opposite; a little shoal of clouds swam from gold to gray across the turquoise sea of the sky, and all the familiar outlook from the store faded wistfully into the blur of twilight.

0 Lord!' Hedrick said at length with the irritation of one whose feelings are on edge.

Somewhere close at hand there was a little rustle, and a voice spoke out of the darkness.

‘Hello, Buddy!’ it said.

The tone was weary, was half-sheepish and half-laughing.

‘Well, I’ll be doggoned!’ the storekeeper cried joyfully.

For a butterfly’s instant a hand caressed his knee as Little Kaintuck slid down on the step at his feet.

‘ I ’lowed I’d druther stay with you, after all,’ he said, his voice soft and shy in the dusk.