ALL were smoking and silent. Several spoke from the shadows as Rome stepped on the porch, and Rufe Stetson faced him a moment in the doorway, and laughed.
Seem kinder s'prised? " he said, with a searching look. " Wasn't lookin' for me? I reckon I'll s'prise sev'ral ef I hev good-luck."
The subtlety of this sent a chuckle of appreciation through the porch, but Rome passed in without answer.
Isom lay on his bed within the circle of light, and his face in the brilliant glow was white, and his eyes shone feverishly. " Rome," he said, excitedly, " Uncle Rufe's hyeh, 'n' they laywayed him, 'n'____________________ " He paused abruptly. His mother came in, and at her call the mountaineers trooped through the covered porch, and sat down to supper in the kitchen. They ate hastily and in silence, the mother attending their wants, and Rome helping her. The meal finished, they drew their chairs about the fire. Pipes were lighted, and Rufe Stetson rose and closed the door.
Thar's no use harryin' the boy," he said; "I reckon he'll be too puny to take a hand."
The mother stopped clearing the table, and sat on the rock hearth close to the fire, her withered lips shut tight about a lighted pipe, and her sunken eyes glowing like the coal of fire in its black bowl.
Now and then she would stretch her knotted hands nervously into the flames, or knit them about her knees, looking closely at the heavy faces about her, which had lightened a little with expectancy. Rufe Stetson stood before the blaze, his hands clasped behind him, and his huge figure bent in reflection. At intervals he would look with half-shut eyes at Rome, who Sat with troubled face outside the firelight. Across the knees of Steve Marcum, the best marksman in the mountains, lay the barrel of a new Winchester. Old Sam Day, Rufe's father-in-law and counsellor to the Stetsons for a score of years, sat as if asleep on the opposite side of the fireplace from the old mother, with his big square head pressed down between his misshapen shoulders.
"The time hev come, Rome." Rufe spoke between the puffs of his pipe, and Rome's heart quickened, for every eye was upon him.
Thar's goin' to be trouble now. I hear as how young Jasper hev been talkin' purty tall about ye-'lowin' as how ye air afeard O' him."
Rome felt his mother's burning look. He did not turn toward her nor Rufe, but his face grew sullen, and his voice was low and harsh. "I reckon he'll find out about that when the time comes," he said, quietly-too quietly, for the old mother stirred uneasily, and significant glances went from eye to eye. Rufe did not look up from the floor. He had been told about Rome's peculiar conduct, and, while the reason for it was beyond guessing, he knew the temper of the boy and how to kindle it. He had thrust a thorn in a tender spot, and he let it rankle. How sorely it did rankle he little knew. The voice of the woman across the river was still in Rome 5 ears. Nothing cuts the mountaineer to the quick like the name of coward. It stung him like the lash of an ox-whip then; it smarted all the way across the river and up the mountain. Young Jasper had been charging him broadcast with cowardice, and Jasper's people no doubt believed it. Perhaps his own did — his uncle, his mother. The bare chance of such a humiliation set up an inward rage. He wondered how he could ever have been such a fool as to think of peace. The woman's gossip had swept kindly impulses from his heart with a fresh tide of bitterness, and, helpless now against its current, he sullenly gave way, and let his passions loose to drift with it.
"Whar d' ye git the guns, Rufe? " Steve was testing the action of the Winchester with a kindling look, as the click of the locks struck softly through the silence.
"Jackson; 'way up in Breathitt, at the eend of the new road."
"No wonder y'u've been gone so long."
"I had to wait thar fer the guns, 'n' I had to travel atter dark comm' back, 'n' lay out'n the bresh by day. Hit's full eighty mile up thar."
"Air ye shore nobody seed ye?"
The question was from a Marcum, who had come in late, and several laughed. Rufe threw back his dusty coat, which was ripped through the lapel by a bullet.
They seed me well 'nough fer that," he said, grimly, and then he looked toward Rome, who thought of old Jasper, and gave back a gleam of fierce sympathy. There were several nods of approval along with the laugh that followed. It was a surprise-so little consideration of an escape so narrow-from Rufe; for, as old Gabe said, Rufe was big and good-natured, and was not thought fit for leadership. But there was a change in him when he came back from the West. He was quieter; he laughed less No one spoke of the difference; it was too vague; but every one felt it, and it had an effect. His flight had made many uneasy, but his return, for that reason, brought a stancher fealty from these; and this was evident now. All eyes were upon him, and all tongues, even old Sam's, waited now for his to speak.
"Whut we've got to do, we've got to do mighty quick," he began, at last. " Things air changin'. I seed it over thar in Breathitt. The soldiers 'n' that scar-faced Jellico preacher hev broke up the fightin' over thar, 'n' ef we don't watch out, they'll be a-doin' it hyeh, when we start our leetle frolic. We hain't got no time to fool. Old Jas knows this as well as me, 'n' thar's goin' to be mighty leetle chance fer 'em to layway 'n' pick us off from the bresh. Thar's goin' to be fa'r fightin' fer once, thank the Lord. They bushwhacked us dunn' the war, 'n' they've laywayed us 'n' shot us to pieces ever sence; but now, ef God A'mighty's willin', the thing's a-goin' to be settled one way or t'other at last, I reckon."
He stopped a moment to think. The men's breathing could be heard, so quiet was the room, and Rufe went on telling in detail, slowly, as if to himself, the wrongs the Lewallens had done his people. When he came to old Jasper his voice was low, and his manner was quieter than ever.
"Now old Jas have got to the p'int whar he says as how nobody in this county kin undersell him 'n' stay hyeh. Old Jas druv Bond Vickers out'n the mount 'ins fer tryin' hit. He druv Jess Hale away; 'n' them two air our kin."
The big mountaineer turned then, and knocked the ashes from his pipe. His eyes grew a little brighter, and his nostrils spread, but with a sweep of his arm he added, still quietly:
"Y' all know whut he's done."
The gesture lighted memories of personal wrongs in every breast; he had tossed a fire-brand among fagots, and an angry light began to burn from the eyes that watched him.
"Ye know, too, that he thinks he has played the same game with me; but ye don't know, I reckon, that he had ole Jim Stover 'n' that mis'-able Eli Crump a-hidin' in the bushes to shoot me "-again he grasped the torn lapel; "that a body warned me to git away from Hazlan; n' the night I left home they come thar to kill me, 'n' s'arched the house, 'n' skeered Mollie n' the leetle gal 'most to death."
The mountaineer's self-control was lost suddenly in a furious oath.
The men did know, but in fresh anger they leaned forward in their chairs, and twisted about with smothered curses. The old woman had stopped smoking, and was rocking her body to and fro. Her lips were drawn in upon her toothless gums, and her pipe was clinched against her sunken breast. The head of the old mountaineer was lifted, and his eyes were open and shining fiercely.
"I hear as how he says I'm gone fer good. Well, I have been kinder easy-goin', hatin' to fight, but sence the day I seed Rome's dad thar dead in his blood, I hev had jes one thing I wanted to do. Thar wasn't no use stayin' hyeh; I seed that. Rome thar was too leetle, and they was too many fer me. I knowed it was easier to git a new start out West, 'n' when I come back to the mount'in, hit was to do jes-whut I'm — going — to — do — now." He wheeled suddenly upon Rome, with one huge hand lifted. Under it the old woman's voice rose in a sudden wail:
Yes; 'n' I want to see it done befoh I die. I hain't hyeh fer long, but I hain't goin' to leave as long as ole Jas is hyeh, 'n' I want ye all to know it. Ole Jas hev got to go fust. You hear me, Rome? I'm a-talkin' to you; I'm a-talkin' to you. Hit's yo' time now!
The frenzied chant raised Rome from his chair. Rufe himself took up the spirit of it, and his voice was above all caution.
"Yes, Rome! They killed him, boy. They sneaked on him, 'n' shot him to pieces from the bushes. Yes; hit's yo' time now! Look hyeh, boys! " He reached above the fireplace and took down an old rifle-his brother's-which the old mother had suffered no one to touch. He held it before the fire, pointing to two crosses made near the flash-pan. " Thar's one fer ole Jim Lewallen! Thar's one fer ole Jas! He got Jim, but ole Jas has got him, 'n' thar's his cross thar yit! Whar's yo' gun, Rome? Shame on ye, boy!"
The wild-eyed old woman was before him. She had divined Rufe's purpose, and was already at his side, with Rome's Winchester in one hand and a clasp-knife in the other. Every man was on his feet; the door was open, and the boy Isom was at the threshold, his eyes blazing from his whitc face. Rome had strode forward.
Yes, boy; now's the time, right hyeh before us all!
The mother had the knife outstretched. Rome took it, and the scratch of the point on the hard steel went twice through the stillness-one more fer the young un"; the voice was the old mother's-then twice again.
The moon was sinking when Rome stood in the door alone. The tramp of horses was growing fainter down the mountain. The trees were swaying in the wind below him, and he could just see the gray cliffs on the other shore. The morning seemed far away; it made him dizzy looking back to it through the tumult of the day.
Somewhere in the haze was the vision of a girl's white face-white with distress for him. Her father and her brother he had sworn to kill. He had made a cross for each, and each cross was an oath.
He closed the door; and then he gave way, and sat down with his head in both hands. The noises in the kitchen ceased. The fire died away, and the chill air gathered about him. When he rose, the restless eyes of the boy were upon him from the shadows.