The Quare Women. Iv: The Singing Gal
IT was not until the train pulled out of the station that Isabel felt sure she was really going to the mountains. When the letter had come the day before, from Amy Scott to Mrs. Gwynne, begging the loan of her daughter for a few weeks, to help in the social work on Troublesome Creek, — ‘for,’ it read, ’the singing classes are by far ourmost popular feature, and none of us can sing; our need of a singer is really desperate,’ — Mrs. Gwynne had at first refused point-blank to let Isabel go. ‘I could not sleep at night,’ she said, ‘with you up in that, wild country, where they do nothing but make moonshine and kill each other off in those horrible feuds.’
Mr. Gwynne’s persuasion, added to Isabel’s importunity, had at last won a reluctant consent; but during the hurried preparations, Isabel was in constant fear of its withdrawal, and while she and her father were driving the three miles to town in the family carriage, she was haunted by the dread of galloping hoofs behind, and the voice of one of the negro boys at the window saying, ’Miss Millicent say she done change her mind, and for Miss Isabel to come on back home.’ Even at the station, she was in such nervous fear that she could hardly show appreciation of Willie Vance’s presence, and of the inevitable box of candy and new novel.
She hardly knew what Willie and her father said as they got her settled in the dingy day-coach (there was nothing better on this newly built road to the coal fields in the edge of the mountains), her one desire being to hear the trainbell ring for a start. After what seemed a long time, it did so; Willie and Mr. Gwynne jumped off, and Isabel felt that she was embarked upon the adventure of her life.
The trip was an all-day one, the heat great, the train exceedingly dirty, but Isabel was all eyes and interest. They passed, first, through the beautiful Blue Grass country, with its smooth, rolling pastures, clear brooks, sleek herds of cattle and horses, and stately homes like her own, set back amid tall trees; then into the poorer and rougher knobs, where life was evidently a different proposition; then the knobs rose into hills, and the hills became steeper and higher, until the train was shut in between cliffs and mountains. The progressive change in the people who got into and off the train all along the way was as striking as the changing topography. It was hard to believe that all could belong to the same state.
About five in the afternoon they arrived at the end of the railroad — a mountain county-seat famous for the terrible feud then raging.
A tall old man in a slouch hat was standing by the platform, and as Isabel descended he inquired solemnly,—
‘Is this the singing gal?’
‘Yes; and of course you ’re Uncle Adam Howard,’ she answered.
Without a word he took her suitcase and led the way along the track, between endless piles of ties and lumber. Once she broke the silence to ask, —
‘How is the feud coming on now?’
To her surprise, he stopped, looked hastily all about, and replied in a low voice, ‘Hit hain’t safe to talk about the war in public. Walls, and even lumberpiles, has years, and trees has tongues, and a man that aims to live peaceable can’t see, hear, nor tell nothing.’
He left the track at last, and turned up a slope toward an ugly frame house, backed into a cliff, which had the words ‘Mountainside Hotel’ in large letters across its front. From its porch, a view of the straggling, muddy town could be had.
The loud supper-bell rang as they entered, and they went at once to the dining-room. Two drummers were the only other guests; the landlady and her daughters waited on the table, and the meal was a silent one.
When she was shown to her room afterward, however, Isabel ventured to make inquiries about the ‘war,’ and the landlady became loquacious upon the subject, and even offered to take her to see the blood-spots where several of the feudists had perished — an offer instantly accepted.
Skirting numerous deep mud-holes, and many reposing hogs and cows, they came at last to the court house, stronghold of the law, which proved to be the scene of the blood-spots. There they were on steps and walls, black and grisly.
‘Hit’s a sight in this world, the terrible things that goes on, and the men that ’s kilt and wounded,’ said the landlady. ‘If my man was alive, or my gals was boys, I would n’t never see ary grain of peace.’ Across from
Across the street from the court house, she pointed out the large store belonging to one of the feud leaders, from the upper windows of which had been fired some of the shots. ’Laywayings,’ ‘amhushings,’ battles, murder and sudden death seemed to be the order of the day, and apparently neither the state militia nor any other power could quell the trouble.
On their return to the hotel, Isabel found in her room, which was also the parlor, the three daughters of the house and the two drummers. One of the girls was producing loud discords on an organ with a front of scroll-work over red-flannel, which adorned one corner; and, as she had preëmpted the only chair in the room, the others sat on the two beds.
After a long hour of this, Isabel was left in possession, and proceeded to make herself ready for the night. The bed-covers were very dingy, and, turning them back, she found that there was but one sheet on each bed, and it was far from fresh. The pillow-cases were no better. She was dismayed for only a moment, however: opening the newspapers her father had provided her with, she covered the top of one bed, and then lay down upon it, with her blue silk kimono and her raincoat for covers.
At earliest dawn she was awakened by Uncle Adam’s loud rap, and the summons, ‘Get up along, sis; we got to take a soon start!'
After they had pulled through the deep mud-holes in the town, they (urned into a creek-bed, and plunged at once into a world of green loneliness and wild beauty. All day long they either ‘followed creeks ’ or wound around the sides of steep mountains, with sheer dropoffs below the narrow trail. Uncle Adam was no talker, but he was a skilled driver. Often it seemed that they must go over the edge, or that the mules could not climb the steps of rock up which they had to pull the heavy wagon; but always the danger was safely passed. Isabel wished, however, that she had four hands instead of two, to hold on with.
Along the creeks, where the going, though very rough, seemed not so dangerous, they passed numbers of windowless log-houses, flanked by almost perpendicular cornfields. Sometimes whole families—men, women, and children—were out hoeing corn; but Uncle Adam explained that ‘the crap’ was about ‘laid by,’ and more often crowds of children swarmed to the doors of the houses to see the wagon pass. Usually there was a withdrawing woman’s face in the dark interior behind.
They met but few men during the day, and every one of these was riding, and carried a gun on arm or shoulder.
‘Why do they all curry guns?’ asked Isabel.
Uncle Adam considered a moment, then replied: ‘Hit’s gen’ally squirrelhunting-time in Breathitt.’
‘Do you mean,’ she inquired, ‘that they all go armed on account of the “war”?’
Uncle Adam’s reply was to reach down in the wagon and remove some bundles of fodder from beneath his feet, exposing a Winchester rifle. ‘ Best to be on the safe side,’ he whispered, dropping the fodder back.
The sun had set before they crossed the last mountain, White Doe; and it was almost dark and mist hung everywhere before they halted at Uncle Adam’s house at the head of White Doe Creek, the halfway place.
A fat feather-bed and clean covers had never looked so good to Isabel; and she threw her weary body and racked bones across it, while Aunt Rhoda went into ‘t’other house’ to put supper on the table. After eating, she fell into bed for good, never knowing when Aunt Rhoda and Uncle Adam got into the other bed in the room. Once in the night she was awakened by a terrific clap of thunder, and a heavy downpour of rain on the roof.
In the morning Uncle Adam appeared troubled. ‘Hit was a bad storm,’he said, ‘and hit means tides, landslips, and quicks all along the way. Reason would say not go on; but the women might get tore-up in their minds about you, so I allow we ’ll ondertake hit.'
Sure enough, the streams that had been low and clear yesterday were today yellow torrents. Often Isabel had to grab her suitcase and lift her feet up into the seat, as the water came swirling into the wagon-bed. The boxes of freight Uncle Adam was hauling to the women just had to take the water.
Isabel noticed that the Winchester no longer reposed on the wagon-floor, and asked the reason.
‘We passed the county line when we crossed White Doe last night,’ Uncle Adam said. ‘Hit’s only in Bloody Breathitt that a weepon is called for.’
‘They have no wars, then, in this county?’
‘Oh, yes, they got one; but hit’s more open and fa’r and squar — not laywaying and ambushing and sech, like in Breat hitt, whar the wrong man gets kilt often as not. Life is tolable safe in this county, and talking hain’t so dangerous, neither. I allus keep my mouth shet in Breathitt — have follered hit sence I were young. But here I can speak freer. Now this here war on Troublesome — ’
‘Oh, do you actually mean there is a war where Cousin Amy and the tents are?’ cried Isabel, delightedly.
‘Right thar at the Forks of Troublesome,’replied Uncle Adam; ‘Fallonsand Kents, they both live thar, and for nigh thirty year thar ’s been a sight of hate and bloodshed betwixt ’em. But they have fit in the open, and done their own killing, mostly — not hired hit done like they foller doing in Breathitt; and so a man has more respects for ’em. Sence the two main heads, Fighting Fult Fallon and Red Rafe Kent, got kilt off about four year’ gone, things hain’t been quite so bad. You see, Red Rafe he finally kilt Fighting Fult; and then young Fult you might say had a bound to revenge his paw, and he kilt Rafe; and then there was a spell of peace whilst young Fult was down at Frankfort a year — ’
‘Do you mean in the penitentiary?’
‘Yes; and then whilst he fit a year in Cuby. But when he come home, ’ peared like he was kindly wild-turned, and hit wa’n’t no time till him and Rafe’s boy, Darcy, started the war all over again. The two boys don’t hardly ever meet without shooting, and they’ve wounded each other time and again, though not fatal; and t’other boys that runs with ’em has been kilt and wounded, and things is pretty bad. But I heared tell that at a picnic the quare women give on the hill last Thursday, nigh all the county being thar, old Uncle Ephraim Kent, the grand-daddy of Troublesome, some way or ’nother persuaded Fult and Darcy to call a truce for the time the women stayed. I allow hit’s true. But of course hit won’t last — there’s too long-lived a hate betwixt Kents and Fallons ever to raly die down.’
He was interrupted by the stopping of the wagon, the bed of which had caught on a large boulder, hidden by the muddy water.
Without a word, or the least show of annoyance, Uncle Adam got out, waded the creek to the bank, climbed to a railfence not far away, and returned with a rail, with which almost thigh-deep in water all the time, he prized and tugged till the wagon was detached from the rock.
Soon afterward they turned out of the creek, and up a mountain. When they were near the top, Uncle Adam, who was walking alongside, handed the lines to Isabel.
‘Hold ’em a minute, sis, whilst I see what’s on ahead.’
He came back soon, saying, ‘Hit ’s a bad slip — the trail all kivered deep. I ’ll have to chop me a way out below.'
Taking his axe, he plunged down the slope, chopping saplings and undergrowth as he went, and as far as possible avoiding big trees.
After quite a while he returned. ‘ Get out, sis, if you feel to,’ he said; ‘but hit would be better if you stayed in and helt the lines, whilst I hang on to the wagon behind. The mules know how — jest hold ’em straight.’
The slope was one of at least fifty degrees, and there was no ledge or bench anywhere below to break a possible descent of five or six hundred feet. Isabel’s heart was in her mouth, but she let it come no further. ‘All right,’ she said, between clenched teeth.
Straight down, therefore, the mules went, a cautious, crouching step at a time, holding the wagon back with their haunches and with Uncle Adam’s help. It was a remarkable performance, as was also the sheer pull up again on the far side of the ‘slip.’
‘ Looks skeerier than hit is,’ remarked Uncle Adam, when they were once again in the road, and the mules were resting and ‘blowing.’
The next thing they hung on was a stump in the middle of the descending trail. ‘Never was kotched on that stump before,’ said Uncle Adam; ‘the big rain has washed the road clean away on both sides. Good thing I fotched that-air rail along; I allowed I ’d need hit a few times.’
After more prizing, they again proceeded for quite a while without difficulty. Then, in a creek where numerous logs were floating, they underlook to ‘ride’ one, and were held for a short time on its larger end.
The various mishaps took time, however, and when night fell they were still some miles from their destination, with rain again beginning to fall.
’I ’m purely afeared to risk Troublesome in the dark,’ said Uncle Adam. ‘Hit is well named—hit is full of quicks. We ’ll take the night here with Benjy Logan’s folks, and go on to the Forks in the morning.’
Controlling her disappointment as best she might, Isabel made friends with Benjy Logan’s folks, slept with them, eight in a room, that night, and was treated with such kindness that she was almost reconciled to the delay.
Next morning the sky was clear, and their journey went well for an hour, until they turned into Troublesome Creek. Then very soon the wagon began to settle and sink, and the mules to strain in vain to pull it out.
‘We’ve struck one,’ said Uncle Adam, calmly. ‘ A man can’t manage no way to shun all the quicks there is in this creek.’ He stepped out on the tongue and began un-gearing the mules.
‘I ’ll ride back yander to the last house we passed and get another team, and some men to help. You set right there on your feet and don’t take no fear — hit ain’t aiming to settle much furder.’
He rode back down the stream, and Isabel ‘sat on her feet’ and watched the yellow ‘tide’ hurry past her, and rise higher in the wagon-bed. Very soon, however, it seemed to reach its limit, and then she relaxed and abandoned herself to the spell of rushing water, green wooded slopes, and deep loneliness.
Her reverie was broken by the plunging of a horse’s hoofs in water, and the appearance of a horseman a short distance ahead. He rode straight down toward her, inquiring, —
‘Did you strike a quick?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘You ’re the singer the women in the tents sont out for, hain’t you?’
‘I was sartain of hit. Where’s Uncle Adam gone to?’
‘To get another team and some help.’
’He ’ll need hit,’ said the newcomer, surveying the wagon.
He was young and extremely handsome, with large dark eyes, blue-black hair, and olive skin, and he sat his horse with perfect grace. Though he did not remove his wide black hat in speaking to Isabel, his manner otherwise was courtesy itself.
‘Hit ’ll take two teams every bit and grain of two hours to pull that wagon out,’ he said. ' Better get up behind me and ride in.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘but Uncle Adam might wonder what had become of me.’
‘That’s a fact, too,’ he said. ‘Better wait till he gets back. I heared from the women you was on the way; and when the rain come up night afore last, and again last night, I knowed there’d be tides, and you’d see trouble coming acrost. And this morning, knowing how mean the quicks is down Troublesome, I tuck a notion to ride down and see how things was.’
‘You are very kind,’ she said. ‘Although we’ve had rather a bad time, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. You see, I love adventure, and something different, and I’ve certainly found it.’
Her blue eyes shone, her hair blew about in golden-brown tendrils, her delicate skin was flushed.
‘I ’m proud you come in,’he said, ‘and the women on the hill, they ’ll be proud, and everybody will, for now we can have a sight more singing and good times. Not that we hain’t had ’em ever sence they come,’ he added.
‘It must be very nice,’ she said.
‘Hit beats anything ever was heared of. You see, the young folks in this country never seed no pleasure before, less’n hit was mean pleasure. We never knowed there was right pleasure. Them women don’t fully sense what they ’re a-doing for us.’
‘I’m crazy to help them, and to see everything, and meet everybody. Life must be very interesting up here. I’ve read a lot, of course, about the feuds, and Uncle Adam tells me there is actually one right here on Troublesome Creek.
‘ Is that so?’
The young man flashed a searching glance into her face before replying, carelessly, —
‘There has been some little trouble in past times.’
‘ Do you know any of the people who carried it on?’
‘Yes,’ he replied, indifferently.
‘I do hope I shall meet them,’ she said; ‘it seems so romantic; just like living hundreds of years ago in The Scottish Chiefs, or some other old tale.’
‘War’s bad, wherever you take hit,’ he remarked; ‘ but sometimes hit’s necessary. I seed something of hit down in Cuba year before last — though of course that was n’t much of a fight.’
‘Oh, you were there, were you?’
‘In what little there was. You live down in the Blue Grass, don’t you?’
‘Hit’s a sight different from this country, hain’t hit — all so level and pretty and smoothed-looking. But lonesome.’
‘Oh, you’ve been there?’
‘ I passed through hit one time on my way to Frankfort.’
’ I don’t see anything lonesome about it.’
‘Don’t you? Well, any level land looks lonesome to me; hit’s more friendly-like to see the hills mustering dost about, and not all drawed off flat and distant like they keered nothing about nobody. While we wait for Uncle Adam,’ he suggested, ‘you might maybe feel to sing a song-ballat; I heared you was a fine singer, and I do love hit.’
‘All right,’ said Isabel. ‘What kind of songs do you like best?’
‘Oh, something that kindly hurts my feelings.’
Isabel cast about in her mind for something plaintive, hit upon ’The Rosary,’ and sung it in her lovely, clear Soprano.
‘That hain’tall?’ he asked in surprise, when she stopped.
‘Yes, that ’s all.’
‘I allowed hit was just taking a start,’ he said. ’Hit leaves the true lovers parted, don’t hit?’
‘Well, I hain’t got no use for hit, then,’ he said, decidedly. ‘The true lovers ought n’t to be plumb parted, or kilt off, in the end. Don’t you know nary ’nother?’
This time she tried ‘Oh, wert thou in the cauld blast,’ with its incomparable words and music.
‘That’s some better, though hit’s too short, too,’ commented her hearer. ‘Don’t you know no long ones, like we foller singing in this country?’
‘I don’t believe I do,’ she said. ‘Suppose you sing one yourself.’
‘No, I hain’t no singer.’
‘Yes, I have a feeling that you are. I want to hear you.’
‘Well, anything to pass the time. I might try “Turkish Lady.’”
He began a many-stanzaed ballad, having a robust time with many queer, long-drawn notes — the story of an English lord who was captured by a Turkish one, and thrown into his deepest dungeon, to be released later by the Turk’s lovely daughter, amid mutual vows of love and constancy.
After ‘seven long years have rolled around,’the Turkish lady ‘bundles up her finest clothing,’and journeys to England, in search of her lagging lover. Arriving at his castle, and ‘tingling at the ring,’she is informed by ‘the proud young porter’ that his master is just bringing a new bride in. She gives him a message to take to his lord; and when he reports it, with the additional information, —
That my two eyes did ever see;
She wears gold rings on every finger,
And on one finger she has three.
There’s enough gay gold about her middle
To buy half of Northumberlee,’—
the master, recognizing his old true love from the description, under the stress of returning passion, breaks his sword in pieces three, packs off the new bride with little ceremony, and celebrates another wedding with the Turkish lady, to the general admiration and glee.
Isabel listened, inexpressibly charmed. ‘Do you realize,’she inquired, ‘that that ballad goes way back to the time of the Crusades, and is probably seven or eight hundred years old? Where did you learn it?’
‘I never heared nothing of hit’s history,’ he said, ‘but hit’s what I call a right ballad— hit turns out proper. My granny she teached hit to me; she used to foller singing the night through on song-ballats.'
‘Oh, will you take me to see her?’ asked Isabel.
‘And your voice is good, too; you ’ll be a great help to me in the singing classes.'
Uncle Adam, another man, and the two teams came splashing up behind.
‘I see you hain’t been lonesome,’remarked Uncle Adam.
‘I allowed hit would be a bad time for you, getting acrost, and rid down to see how things was,’explained the young man, with dignity. ‘I axed the singing woman to get up behind and ride in, but she said she felt to wait for you.'
‘Take her on along,’ said Uncle Adam. ‘We got to hitch the teams to the hind eend and pull out back’ards, if we do pull out, and hit ’ll be a couple hours at best, and I take hit she wants to see t’other women. Jump up behind, sis, and go in with him, and tell the women not to get out of heart, that I’m a-coming some time!’
The young man rode close alongside, took off his coat and spread it behind him on the nag’s back, and Isabel jumped from the wagon-seat, and lit in the proper place. As she firmly grasped the hantle of the saddle, her fingers just grazed the handle of a pistol that protruded from her rescuer’s pocket.
‘Far’well till I come,’ called Uncle Adam, as they started up the creek. ‘Take keer of her, Fult!'
Isabel started violent ly at the name. Was it possible that the youth sitting before her on the saddle, in all his dashing beauty, was the young feud leader? He had certainly mentioned both Frankfort and Cuba. Thrilled through and through, and consumed with curiosity, she could not endure the suspense a moment longer.
‘My name’s Isabel Gwynne,’she said. ‘ What’s yours ? ’
‘Full Fallon,’he replied, gently touching the nag with his spur.