IN the false dawn, soft madrugada of the Spanish, we set out to Wildcat.
We walked softly under the clear song of the stars. For it is the morning stars that sing together. In lonely mountain camps we never hear the night stars sing. Perhaps our ears are dulled by the clamor of the day. They seem very far away, silent with the resignation of faith — or of despair. And now, the earth washed sweet by last night’s rain, the wet leaves trembled with the nearness of dawn.
John, frantic with joy at the open road once more, disappeared in the shadows of the deep wood, and Sisyphus rattled happily over the rainsharpened rocks.
‘This constant breaking of home ties!’ cried Peter. ‘We grow attached at the slightest opportunity. Say we camp alone after this.’
‘Oh, but that is being afraid of life, is n’t it?'
‘According to report, there are idiots and mudholes to be afraid of to-day. And the most sumptuous still in the mountains. The fellow who runs it is king of Wildcat Settlement, I left John’s harness out for the mudholes.'
John knew it. He always knew. He would return when the way grew difficult and pull cheerfully as we urged Sis over some steep bank, or through deep mud where his four feet trotted lightly.
The dawn breeze died. The last star faded. And as the light suffused the dense wood that surrounded us we stopped on a hilltop overlooking the lush green plateau, watched with neverfailing awe the sunrise, and lighted the little flame of our breakfast fire. Water for coffee by the roadside. For every despairing stream was chuckling now, and every drooping mountain flower was smiling with the recent rain.
This day we did not linger for accustomed cigarettes and conversation; for beyond, across the low, level stretch of Wildcat, slept Shady Cove, which we hoped to reach by sunset.
At the base of the mountain we slackened our pace and all ihrce went into harness, for now each foot must be lifted with effort in the thick, sticky mud. Once, at a rushing stream with high banks, it. took some time and some work to induce Sisyphus to cross on the two frail planks that bridged the swollen creek. And I, who can never walk steadily in high places, shuddered at the foaming depth below.
Noon — and we were at trouble to find a mound dry enough for a comfortable camp, hemmed in as we were by tall dark-shadowed woods of oak and gum and of sycamore and hickory, with fern and spongy moss beneath.
Immediately after a buffet lunch beside Sis we hastened on, although we were undeniably weary, and John so tired we set him free. But we were anxious to finish this journey across Wildcat, which abounded, we had been warned, with congenital idiots from intermarriage, with treacherous mudholes, and with lawless moonshiners.
We had seen several cabins set back in the forest, but now that we were apparently near the centre of the plateau we came upon a rather pretentious log house, and near it a barn three times the size of the house. Something common enough elsewhere, but unusual in the mountains. We picked our way gingerly, the swamps on either side of the road recalling alligators to me and suggesting water moccasins to Peter and John. As w-e neared the place we could see that there was a corral of oak poles between the barn and the house. It must have been seven feet, high, and there appeared to be something exciting taking place within. For on the top rail were perched a dozen men in a row, like so many outlandish birds with half-spread wings. They were squawking wildly: ‘Now’s yer time! Git ’er now! Look out, Lureely!'
John ran forward and stood transfixed, stiff-legged, staring between the poles of the fence. At this each bird turned his head like an owl and sent us an appraising glance of hostility. An owl hoot of ‘Who-who’ would have been more reassuring than this inimical silence. Unabashed, we climbed the fence and augmented the number of birds by two.
Inside the long corral, deep in the mire, at least twenty cows were plunging wildly about. A man with a coil of heavy rope stood in the middle of the enclosure trying, we could see, unsuccessfully to lasso one particular cow who had seen the hand of Fate, for she ran around the outside of the circle of cattle pawing and bellowing.
Time after time the man threw his rope, but the cow always evaded it and plunged about until the whole herd was milling. Deep in the mire a woman with great bare feet splashed about. She wore a long blue calico dress so plastered with mud that it flapped heavily about her tall, thin form. Her sunbonnet had fallen in the mud and her long graying hair whipped in the wind as she bounded around calling, ‘ Soo! Soo! Soo. Reddy!’ She was carrying a heavy bucket and was endeavoring to place handfuls of salt on the backs of the frightened cows in the hope of quieting them when they stopped to lick the salt from each other’s and their own backs. The foam from their licking lips filled the air like spindrift in an ocean storm, but they never ceased to mill. A tall bearded man in high-topped boots called continually: ‘Lureely! Kim on outern thar! Lureely! Let thetair fool man ketch ther consarned cowbrute! I don’t keer effen he don’t buy her! Kim outern thet, Lureely! Ye’ll git trompled!’
It might be supposed that one of the dozen men who decorated the fence w’ould have gone to the woman’s assist - ance. Rut in the mountains a cow’ is peculiarly a woman’s charge. The man buys and sells. But no mountain man would so demean himself as to feed or milk a cow; and I have seen cows fright - ened by the mere presence of a man.
NOW there is the glory of a frenzied horse, and the grandeur of a maddened bull, but a cow, when she forgets her dignity and ceases to pose for her picture beneath a tree or knee-deep in quiet water, is undeniably an absurd creature. A matron, fashioned for contented repose in home surroundings; when she takes on speed her every move is some grotesque and lumbering antic. It was impossible not to laugh; but I cried to Peter: ‘The poor woman! Why does n’t Lureely come out? Why does n’t someone go in and help her?'
‘Why, yes,’ said Peter. And to my consternation he dropped lightly from the fence, threw me his sombrero, dodged the racing cattle, and called to the man inside to throw him the rope. There w as a high stump in the centre of the corral and Peter, mounting this, cried: ‘I’ll rope this cow’ for you! But I want you to understand the moment I have roped her I’m over the fence and out! It’s up to you then. You can snub her around this stump.’
No one spoke, and I called involuntarily: ‘Lureely! Come on out!’ But the misguided woman stood staring at Peter, who had spoken as one having authority; and the man brought the rope without a word.
‘This is a cable, not a rope,’ said Peter, ‘but I’ll try it.’ And he stepped from the stump and carefully examined and coiled the rope.
My heart was in my mouth. What utter recklessness! This desperado mood of Peter’s would draw down upon us contempt. Already there was hostility. And this, we knew, was the home of the great moonshiner — the king of Wildcat. And the danger! The cows were now tearing about in a way that defies description. And Peter, his black curls flying above his scarlet handkerchief, so very slender compared to these stalwart men of the mountains! I called to John, fearing he might rush to Peter’s assistance and further enrage those terrible animals. But John did not answer. He was waving his white plumed tail in pride and expectancy. His god was adequate to any situation. Of course I knew that Peter had spent some time on a Western dude ranch, but he had never claimed proficiency in roping cattle. Now, astonishingly, unerringly, the heavy rope swirled through the air and dropped precisely over the head of the unfortunate cow in question. In a second Peter was laughing on the fence beside me.
Inside the corral it was no laughing matter. The man had seized the end of the rope and had snubbed it around the stump. But the rope was long and the lassoed cow began to race around the outside of the circle of milling cows, and the screaming woman, as well as the trampling herd, was pressed to the middle of the corral about the stump. Round and round the roped cow ran, gathering the woman and the plunging cattle into a clashing, bellowing mass. I shut my eyes, but opened them when a great shout went up. For the bearded man, seizing a rail from the fence, ran into the corral and laid about him valiantly. At last the poor cow fell, and Lureely, unexpectedly alive, limped away toward the house.
A man assisted the buyer with the cow, and the poor creature was dragged from the corral. As he passed us the buyer said: ‘I’d give a hundred dollars effen I could rope a cow lak thet! Hit wuz a plumb surprisin’ sight on yearth!’
Peter dismissed this praise with a wave of the hand, as if he roped a cow daily before breakfast. But, meeting my gaze of awe and pride, he said: ‘Surprisin’ to me, too. A long time since I twirled a rope. I wanted to help the old woman; and, by George, I nearly finished her.'
Said the buyer to the bearded man: Tied I knowed thet-air cow-brute would a sulled lak thet, I’d niver bought her. Effcn ye iver fish my hat outern thet mud jest give hit to yer womern. She shore aimed hit.’
Said the bearded man to the buyer: ‘ Hed I knowed whut kind o’ a cowman ye air, I would n’t a sold her. Effen I iver fish inything outern thet-air mud hit’ll be my womern’s toenails! Lak ’nuff she air crippled fur life.’
Delightedly we called the fascinated and reluctant John and pushed on. The bearded man seemed to be in conference with the men who had sat on the fence. Suddenly he called: —
‘Hyar, ye-all! Stop! Ye feller thet roped ther cow — stop!’
‘ AYhar ye aim ter go?’
We replied that we were aiming to go to Shady Cove.
‘Got kin thar?’
‘Wal, I ’low ye cain’t make hit ternight. Ye kim inter ther house an’ stop by all night. In ther mornin’ some o’ ther boys’ll show you-all ther short road ter Shady.’
The king of Wildcat spoke more in command than in invitation, more in menace than in hospitality. Our eyes met, and we turned and followed him into the house. For always we bore in mind the advice of friendly mountaineers. And when the owner of a still said turn, we turned. And, after all, we had wasted so much time that we knew we should never reach Shady Cove by sunset.
Inside the big bare room redolent of muscadine jelly in the making, Peter prevailed upon Lureely to remove the muddy rags from her lacerated feet and to apply antiseptic gauze and peroxide from our little medicine chest. She rewarded us by a sight of her marvelous quilts — her treasure — and by addressing Peter as ‘Doc’ and informing the household that he ‘war a Doc.’ There were three handsome young women, and one beautiful girl of eighteen perhaps, evidently ‘Iakin’.'
At an earlier supper than is common among fanners, eight men sat sullenly and silently with us, waited on by the women. When we had finished and were taking snuff— the wine and walnuts of a mountain dinner — one of the women lighted a lamp and showed us our room, destitute of furniture but for four beds, one in each corner.
‘You-all,’ she said, ‘kin pick out whutiver baid ye want ter. The rest kin take whut’s lift.’
We asked permission to bring Sisyphus in and to tie John to the wheel, and, selecting a bed near the only window that could be raised, sank gratefully into the feathers and awaited the others. Presently six men with rifles stalked in and, depositing their firearms beside their beds, blew out the lamp, and soon the heavy, liquor-laden air was filled with snores.
Peter whispered: ‘ Go to sleep. We ’re safer here than we should be in camp.’
‘Of course,’ I answered in a resigned whisper, ‘though they probably mean to shoot us at sunrise.’ And we slept sweetly until the sound of the breakfast horn awakened us. The six roommates were washing their faces at a trough and combing their hair with a small horn comb hanging by a long string to the porch wall. They were fine, fair, strapping young fellows, silent and sullen. From the bank behind the house by the lazy river the steam of the still rose gallant and unashamed.
At snuff time the king of Wildcat said curtly, ‘Three o’ ther boys is goin’ yore way.’ And they did — one preceding us with his rifle on his shoulder, and two following, also armed. We marched on until well past the road that leads from Shady Cove to the world. Then, telling us the road led straight from there to the Cove, they left us.
We passed several small cabins, often guarded by a moat and a drawbridge of planks. For there were standing pools of water everywhere, and the rising steam in the hot August sun made our walking a perpetual Turkish bath.
Before one of these log cabins we stopped on a slight elevation to catch the fitful breeze and to rest. A wild figure in a dress of coarse sacking came running down the path from the house, stopping to reach for a stone.
‘Stop!’ she screamed. ‘Stop, youall!’ And a rock whizzed through the air, striking Sisyphus with such force that the scar remains to this day. Peter quickly pushed me down behind the cart, and, running to the woman, seized her hands.
‘You know,’he said quietly, ‘you must n’t do that.'
‘ I wants my fortune telled,’croaked the woman. ‘Ye air gypsies. I know ’bout gypsies. I wants my fortune telled!’
‘ We are not fortune tellers,’Peter replied, and released her hands. Instantly she hurled a rock at me where I had risen and was standing behind Sisyphus. ‘Ye gotter tell my fortune! I wants my fortune telled!’ And suddenly she began to cry. A pathetic, a terrifying creature. Incredibly emaciated, her head shaven. Her immense eyes, blazing like a light from out an empty skull, peered out as if all the life in her body had been sucked up by some alien tenant who gazed out with a wild curiosity at the world of men. Her hands, which could so well cast a stone, were great dirty claws. And her cracked voice was like the croak of some huge threatening bird. From her waist dangled a small rope that seemed to have been gnawed apart.
Peter, not daring to release her, called repeatedly, hoping to bring someone from the cabin or the field. But no answer came. Gently he tried to induce the woman to return to the house. But at this she began to fight and to scream. ‘She’s goiter tell my fortune! I hain’t goin’ back! I wants ter git erway frum Wildcat! I wants my fortune telled!’
‘All right,’said Peter desperately, ‘I ’ll tell your fortune.’ The demented woman struck at his face with her long brown claw. ‘I don’t want no man ter tell my fortune! Hit ’s gypsy womem thet tells fortunes. They looks in yer hand. Tell my fortune, gypsy womern! ’ She sprang away from Peter and grasped my hand.
Heaven forgive me if the mere outward appearance of any human creature should bar me from fellowship in a mad world. But rather would I have faced the rifle of any moonshiner in Wildcat Settlement than have held the hand of this shell of a woman possessed of a devil. But Peter had reached for my free hand and was whispering, ‘Try, if you can.’
So I swallowed hard and managed to say, ‘Sit here on the fallen tree and be very quiet, and I will tell your fortune.’
Poor creature! Her fortune! Fortune! The very word filled my mouth with bitterness; signaled the curtain to rise on the farce of life. Each of us on his precarious island of security, cold with a secret fear of the awful acquiescence of the stars. Always the cruel persistence of our dreams amid sardonic laughter of whatever gods there be. Her fortune!
At last the piteous creature seated herself on the wet ground beside the fallen tree and commenced to simper in a silly, satisfied way.
‘You are soon to go away from Wildcat,’ I faltered. ‘You will go where it is sweet, and cool, and pleasant always — and you will be happy.’
‘Be whut?’ whispered the woman.
‘You will be young again, and you will run about as you used to do when your beautiful hair was brown and your cheeks like red roses. You remember a time like that. You will fly as free as a bird wherever you like. This day will only come back to you like the memory of a troubled dream. You will love everyone and everyone will love you.’
‘Will I hev a pair o’ gold yearrings? I allers wanted gold yearrings. Allers I craved ’em.’
And oh, the shabby dreams, the gewgaw ambitions that never die! ‘Yes,’ I answered firmly, ‘if you still want them you will have them.’
The woman fixed her great eyes on the distant horizon of purple hills and spoke as if to herself. ‘ He allers said he’d git ’em fur me sometime. “Mammy,” he’d say, “whin my leetle calf grows up I’ll sell hit an’ buy ye some gold yearrings.'”
Suddenly the skeleton figure rocked and wept. ‘I don’t want thim yearrings, gypsy womem! Hit hain’t thet I wants ye ter tell. I wants him! Thct nice place whar I’m goin’ ter, will he be thar? I wants ter hyar him sayin’ whin I war plumb tired, “Mammy, I ’ll holp ye tote ther water frum ther spring in my leetle gourd.” I wants ter hyar him! Hit air so still hyar in Wildcat! Folks dies by tharsilves hyar. Will he be thar too, gypsy womern, in thct nice place whar I’m a-goin’?'
The woman was quiet now and spoke with piteous expectant appeal. Peter turned away his face. For we both knew the sudden silence that comes over the world, never again in its entirety to be lifted. ‘Tell her!’ whispered Peter gently but relentlessly. ‘Tell her.’
And with more assurance than I felt I answered: “Yes, you will have that, too. The same voice; the sound of the little feet; and the small hand shut in your own.'
The woman looked up through happy tears.
Suddenly we seemed to have drawn all the latent forces of horror that lurk about us into an epitome of all human rebellion and despair. How paltry all our egoistic writhings in a tiny point of time — in a swinging universe! It was grotesque. A demented old woman, two obscure wanderers, and a dog with the ache of dumbness in his throat. The melancholy hills hemming us in here in this remote lost valley.
‘Hyar, Miss Annie! Ye leave thim folks erlone, an’ kim back ter the house!’ called a woman who came running from around the cabin. ‘She war worser ter-day, an’ whin I wint ter ther field I hed ter tie her ter ther baidpost, fearin’ she’d git ter ther branch. She allers makes fur ther water. She air outern her haid sence her boy died an’ the water wuz too high fur a doctor ter kim. But hit would n’t a done no good noways. He war bited by a moccasin snake. Kim on in now, Miss Annie,’ said the woman kindly. ‘Come on, poor gypsy woman,’ said Peter. ‘You’ve had an evil dream. We’ll make camp to rest, and I ’11 brew you a fine cup of tea.’
Easier said than done. For on either side of the road was a swamp, and not until we had come to a wide shallow stream where a great, flat, sun-baked rock lay in the middle of the river was the problem of a camp solved. John, as he often did, suggested the solution. For at once he swam across to the dry island rock and, shaking himself frenziedly, stretched out to dry in the sun.
So we unlocked the cart, found our bathing suits, carried Sis across, and soon had a fire blazing on the rock from the débris we found there. It was a happy little river — the water crystal clear, and the banks bordered with laurel and shaded by willows. Presently we were smiling, a trifle wanly, over our adventures in Wildcat.
‘There arc those,’ said Peter, ‘who might consider Wildcat Settlement an unusual choice for a somewhat belated wedding journey.’
‘But there’s Shady Cove just ahead. And it is better than seasickness or a summer hotel where all is vanity and vexation of spirit.’
And, unusually weary, I lay back in the hot sunshine with John beside me, while Peter packed the cart after lunch. For even in this sweet spot we dared not linger to-day. Suddenly Peter whispered: ‘Lie still. Don’t move. There is a man with a rifle hid in the willows behind you.’ Then, ‘Hello, stranger! Come across and have a cup of tea with us.'
The man lowered his rifle and came through the laurel.
‘I’m a-lookin’ fur a wild hawg. Hain’t seen none crbout, hev ye?’
‘No,’ said Peter. ‘Going to shoot him?’
‘Wal, I shoots wild hawgs and ithcr varmints some days. Most mistuck ye-all fur varmints in thim striped clothes.'
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘these are our swimming clothes. Our others are in the cart. Had your dinner? We have eaten, but there’s some left. Come across.’
‘No, I hain’t ben ter dinner; but I hain’t no striped swimmin’ clo’es, an’ I don’t ’low ter git wet. I got ther rheumatiz pow’ful bad.’
‘I’ll wade across and bring you a bucket of tea and a sandwich.’ And Peter cut two huge slices of bread and two pieces of boiled ham.
The man ate and drank eagerly. ‘Whar ye-all aimin’ ter go?’ he asked.
‘Shady Cove,’ answered Peter. ‘We spent the night with Sanford.’
‘Wal, hit hain’t nothin’ ter be proud of. Got kin in Shady?’
‘See Sanford’s store?’
‘Hit’s er big store. I ’low he’s got duebills on ther hull settlemint. Nobody hain’t got nothin’ lift but iniquity in the en-tirc settlemint.’
‘Iniquity?’ I queried.
’Yeah. He’s got a mortgage on iverbodv. I hain’t got no iniquity lift now myself.’
One might suppose that the sudden confidences of the mountaineers are premature. But the customs of sophistication do not obtain in remote places. Reserved, silent, even sullen, when the mountain man condescends to speech with a stranger it is of vital, fundamental things.
‘Much obleeged,’ said the old man as Peter waded across for the cup and plate. ‘Hit tasted pow’ful good. We air outern meat at our house. I war tryin’ ter shoot a wild hawg. I air got ther rheumatiz so bad I cain’t work march. But I gotter new medicine thet liolps some.’ And he unfolded with pride a paper from his pocket.
‘Hit air called Blessed Relief; an’ ther di-rcctions says, “Rub on ther afflicted part in ther mornin’ an’ before goin’ ter baid at night. Keep ther feet dry, an’ eat sparin’ly o’ meat.” I follers thet last di-rection an’ all ther family foller hit too, I ’lows. Thim di-rections is all right, only I hain’t got no parts. I air all afflicted parts. Effcn er man kin git his rheumatiz lo-catcd he air placed so he kin work on hisself. Trouble is ter git hit lo-catcd.’
To make amicable conversation w hile Peter packed the cart. I said: ‘Did you ever try the sun cure? This sunbaked old rock has taken away all the pain in my back.'
‘Hey?’ said the old man. ‘Mebby so.’
‘But where,’said Peter, ‘is that fine new pound of butter? It was unusually good butter. I spread the sandwiches with it only a moment ago. It is humanly impossible that it should have disappeared from this rock.'
‘I ’low the dawg et hit,’ suggested the old man.
But this I denied. John is an honest dog.
At last, pitying Peter’s bewildered state, I arose lazily and assisted in the search.
‘He, he, he!’ laughed the man. ‘I reckon I see thet pound o’ butter. I ’low’ hit war not ther rock hut ther grease thet holped yer rheumatiz! Hit air stickin’ to ther afflicted part.’ It was. I must have slid over on it when the man appeared and startled me.
The old man, still chuckling, shouldered his rifle and crept through the laurel. ‘Effen you-all sees iny wild hawgs jist sheer ’em this-away, will ye? Hit’s er long ways ter Shady. ’Low ye’ll be startin’ on in yer clo’es. Apply ter ther afflicted part! He, he, he!’
‘He is not hunting hawgs. He is a spy. If we ever get out of Wildcat I would n’t cross it again even in an airship,’ said Peter.
‘ Another escape. It is lucky for us he was hungry. Well, we shall soon be at the Cove. We’ll hurry.’
Carrying Sisyphus across the river and changing to our clothes that looked less like ‘striped varmints,’ we trudged on through the mire. But where the river made a horseshoe bend there was a small bridge, and across it came a wagon drawn by mules. A man and a woman sat on the spring seat. The mules took fright before we could extricate Sis from the mud and climb the high bank, and the man was at trouble to hold them. The woman pushed back her sunbonnet and cursed us with astounding fluency and vigor. Never before in the mountains had we heard a profane word. Men in the mountains do not swear before their women.
‘Ye ort ter be putt offen ther road, skeerin’ folks an’ takin’ up ther road!’ She turned her head to some louts leaning on the railing of the bridge and screamed: ‘Whoop ’em, boys! Whoop ’em outern ther settlemint! The—’ And here followed such a minute and vivid description of each of us, of John, and of Sis, that we were compelled to laugh; though I put John on his chain and took the rifle from Sis’s slandered back and carried it across the bridge. One of the youths called, ‘Whar’d ye steal thet dawg?’ and threw a clod at John.
We felt we had had a narrow escape. And we did not release John or relax a certain vigilance for an hour. But now we realized with a kind of terror that, owing to our slow progress through the mud, we must make camp. We could not reach Shady Cove by dark. At last we found a mound that seemed high and dry above the swamps, and we set about at once collecting wood for a friendship fire as well as a cooking fire. For already the damp air was rising from the swamp and mosquitoes were singing.
Not until we had established ourselves comfortably did we miss John. I sounded the little whistle we carried, but no white form came bounding through the trees. We were not yet disturbed, for often John disappeared, bent on original research, and we would find him farther along waiting to welcome us. So we walked on, searched the woods, and, now thoroughly alarmed, called until it was so dark we feared to lose our way and fall into some treacherous bog. We built a great friendship fire, after our brave attempt at supper, and Peter piled wood near it for what he knew would be for me a sleepless night. Then he set the smudge fire across the door of the tent; and though he insisted that he share the watch with me, I refused the sacrifice. Presently he was asleep in the tent and I was sitting with my back against a tree, staring into the flames, and all about me the cold malice of the night.
Always I have envied Peter, Napoleon, and the entire Negro race their ability to advance determinedly into the ocean of sleep. For me, I must climb cliffs, descend tortuous paths, and then fall into slumber by mere accident.
We had exchanged few words as to John’s fate. Our hearts were too sick. But we agreed to start back at daylight and search Wildcat Settlement until we found him if we spent the remainder of the summer there.
At intervals, above the mighty chorus of the frogs, I sounded the shrill whistle. And always, as if it had been the signal for the curtain to rise at the theatre, the orchestra was suddenly hushed, and I could hear the whisper of leaves and the crackle of the fire. What a deafening chorus! So many frogs — were they to advance upon us they must bury us tent and all! I had n’t thought there were so many frogs in the world.
There was a curious harmony in the pandemonium. As if the deep-embedded rocks, the roots of giant trees, the hollow caves inside the earth, gave tongue together in a horrid sanction to the eternal sovereignty of the powers of darkness. There was no mockery, no rebellion, in their shouting. Rather a solemn assent to the cruelty that lurks below the flowered surface of their world. Had John slept here with his head on my knee, we might have thought it funny — this wild chorus of mournful demons. For, listening through the long hours of the night, I came to distinguish certain voices. Boom! boom! boom! the mighty bass. A silence — then the lyric soprano trilling away, and waiting an instant for the barytone — then all the voices in triumphant unison.
And ever my mind ran in a vicious circle. He was trapped. He was calling us who had never failed him before. Our comrade! He was stolen. He was beaten. John, who had never heard a harsh word! Then I scorned myself for wasting such grief upon a dog. Why, there were children in the world that very night beaten, suffering, orphaned, alone. It was useless. My mind would go back to the days when he was a little white fluffy ball, so wildly proud in that hour when he could first jump as high as my couch where I lay ill. And the day when he staggered home, poisoned. And he lay under the chinaberry tree on the cool grass, and Peter said, ‘Come away. We have done all we can. He is gone.’ And I leaned down and said, ‘Good-bye, little friend,’and he gave the slightest wag of his plumed tail, and I ran for the cup of hot coffee — and lie lived!
They tell us we love dogs because they flatter our vanity — parasitical sycophants. John admired Peter extravagantly, but one could see that he considered me inferior in all that goes to make a man. And now the memory of those pleading eyes when sometimes I denied him a place in the car — a day that would have meant unalloyed bliss to him — only for the reason that he might cause me some slight inconvenience! We recognized that John was not as intelligent as some other dogs we knew. But who loves his friends for their intellectual superiority? John was honest, faithful, brave, and had a real appreciation of beauty.
How loud the frogs sing! Louder. Louder. An indistinguishable ringing in my ears. And day is breaking, and I lie in a crumpled heap by the ashes with a pillow under my head, and a blanket carefully tucked about me.
We made our coffee on the embers of the friendship fire and, hiding Sisyphus in a laurel thicket, set out on the back trail with heavy hearts. But Heaven sent us luck. Behind us trotted two sleek horses, with a wagon driven by a friendly man who asked us if we wanted a lift. We told him our story as we jolted along, He was from Shady Cove and was going ‘outside for Granny who war over ter Jim Blake’s.'
‘No,’he said, ‘yo’-all’s dawg hain’t trapped. Thar hain’t no trappin’ in Wildcat nohow. Nothin’ but makin’ pore liquor an’ seilin’ hit, an’ raisin’ houn’ dawgs an’ sellin’ ’em. Wildcat sells iverthing an’ lives as hard as heck. We-all don’t neighbor ’ith Wildcat.’
‘How,’ asked Peter, ‘did Wildcat get that way?’
“I kin rieollict back whin Wildcat war as good er settlemint as thar war in these-hyar mountings. But whin Sanford got ter soilin’ red-devil-lye liquor outside, iverbody got ter makin’ hit an’ sellin’ hit too. Thin Sanford he buys ’em out er whoops ’em outern ther settlemint, an’ they loses ther places, an’ iverbody loses heart. Why, some o’ ’em don’t farm a-tall — don’t raise nothin’. Effen ther womern did n’t make gyarden they’d starve.’
‘Here,’ I cried, ‘is the place where I saw John last! He ran east, chasing a rabbit,’
‘Yo’-all jis’ projict round,’ said the man, ‘an’ ye’ll find him tied up summers. Ther air some houses back thar up thet road to ther left. I ’ll be comin’ erlong ’ith Granny this evenin’ ’bout four o’clock. I’ll pick ye up on ther road an’ ride ye inter Shady. I air ther storekeeper thar, an’ ther best campin’ spot in ther Cove air jist ter one side o’ my store. Git erlong, bosses!’ And our only friend in Wildcat was gone.
‘How do I “projict round”?’ asked Peter. I don’t know how to projict.’
‘Neither do I. But I’ll carry the rifle and you go ahead and projict.’
We came upon a desolate cabin set far back in trees.
‘Now,’ said Peter, ‘I’ll just go in and ask if they’ve seen our dog. I’m no diplomat.’
A grim woman with a locked face came to the door and asked us in. ‘No,’ she replied to Peter’s question, ‘hit’s all we kin do ter take keer o’ our own dawgs, ’thout keepin’ track o’ yourn.’
Peter, for a chance to look about, asked if he could get himself a fresh drink of water. The woman took the bucket and gourd and said she would go with him to the spring.
By the one window of the room sat an old woman in a clean calico dress. She was piecing a quilt of such a pretty and intricate pattern that I examined the work and told her how beautiful I thought it. She seemed pleased, and showed me all the pieces in her basket. As I followed Peter and the woman out of the door, the old woman coughed. There was something significant, portentous in that cough, and I looked back. She beckoned me. ‘I ’ll wait here and rest,’ I called to Peter.
‘Now,’ whispered the old woman, ‘effen ye’ll swar on a stack o’ Bibles higher’n yore haid thet ye won’t tell, 1 ’ll toll ye sumpen.’
‘Yistiddy evenin’ thar war a white dawg runned past hyar — chasin’ cr varmint, I ’low. I hearn him barkin’ over to Al Grier’s house nixt ourn. Thin I heerd a dawg howl lak he war ketched an’ drug. Minnie, hyar, war outen ther gyarden patch. She musta knowed hit loo, but she don’t ’low ter hcv no trouble ’ith thim Griers. Thesis low-down folks. I ’low you-all’s dawg is shot up thar this holy minute.’
‘But oh, how can wc get him? There arc no officers of the law in Wildcat, I suppose. They may not give him up to us.’
‘Lawsy, no! They aims ter sell him outside. But I ’low ye hes a chancel ter git him effen ye is slick enough. Al Grier an’ his biggest boy rid by goin’ ler Sanford’s airly this mornin’. I hain’t seen ’em kim back. They did n’t hey ther dawg, fur I watched ’em. Solly air lakin’, but he air plumb stout an’ kin fight, though they don’t give him no gun. Mostly he air sleepin’ under a tree whin his pappy air away. Don’t let on whin yer man kims ’ith the water. Minnie air my son’s womern.'
I took from my pocket an envelope containing two bright little handkerchiefs and gave them to the dear old woman.
‘Lawsy,’ she cried, ‘thim air too leelle to do no good fur hankerchers!
I ’ll jis’ snip ’em up fur quilt pieces ’fore Minnie gits ’em.’ And she snipped them with her great shears and hid them in her basket.
Catching Peter’s eye as he gave me a gourd of water, I nodded significantly. We thanked the sullen Minnie and the gallant old woman and went down the grassy road that led to Grier’s.
‘What luck!’ cried Peter excitedly. ‘I’ll go on and climb the side fence. Give me the rifle. Wait here till I signal you to come. We’d best be together. But don’t, call or whistle if you hear John howl.'
Peter disappeared around the cabin, and in a minute that seemed an hour he waved to me, and I climbed the rail fence and joined him at a ruined barn behind the house.
‘My word, but he’s a whale — that Solomon! lie’s asleep on the grass at the east side of the house. John is not inside. I looked in.’ Neither was he in the barn. Oh, could they have sold him outside already — taken him where we could never find him? Peter went to look in a henhouse and I turned to a small shed with the upper half of a locked door open. I found a piece of plank and climbed up to look inside. There lay John, exhausted, his weary head between his paws, tied by a thick rope to some implement. I crept away and brought Peter, then climbed through the upper door, leaving Peter on guard with the rifle. I put my hand over John’s mouth and his excited barks changed to sneezes. But he jumped about so wildly that I could not untie the rope and had to get Peter’s knife to cut it — horribly frightened at the delay.
At last John vaulted through the door and whined with his head on Peter’s shoulder. I found a keg and climbed out. We put the chain on John and ran for the fence, Peter and John in the lead. But my skirt caught on the fence and I could not tear it loose. A gigantic, shambling figure came from behind the cabin and sniffed the air like some huge wild beast. I screamed to Peter, brought the top rail down with me, but freed my skirt, and ran for my life. Forsaking the road, we plunged into the deep woods. As we cautiously emerged again into the open road, there, driving down the road from the north, came two men in a wagon. The Griers! Laughing hysterically, we all three took to the woods again until we were almost at the thicket where Sisyphus waited. We pushed on at once and it was long past noon when we stopped for lunch. But oh, the delight of that dinner of herbs together!
At last came the rattle of a wagon and our friend from Shady called: ‘Got him! Gil in. Best, putt him in too so thar won’t be no chancet fur a ruckus. Granny likes dawgs.'
How happily we jolted along on the board set across the wagon for a seat! How gratefully we clutched the little bumping, interfering form!
‘Where is that place called Wildcat?’ grinned Peter. The man turned alarmed eyes, and I hastened to say, ‘He means we have forgotten our troubles at Wildcat.’ And, indeed, how faint already was the memory of the king of Wildcat and his patient wife with the lacerated feet: the demented woman who had opened Dantean gates for me; the rheumatic spy who hunted wild hogs; the stealer of dogs. A little new happiness — at best but an escape from sorrow — had, like a ray of sunshine, chased away the demon-peopled dark. And all because a little creature who cannot speak, and some tell us cannot reason, was with us again.
Peter, waving his hat, stood upon the insecure seat and chanted wildly: ‘Farewell, Wildcat! “And if forever, still forever fare thee well."'