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Jack and the Mountain Pink by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

YOUNG SELDEN was bored. Who was not bored among the men? It was the tense summer of '78. A forlorn band of refugees from the plague crowded a Nashville hotel. There was nothing for the men to do but to read the fever bulletins, play billiards in an insensate sort of way, and keep out of the way of the women crying over the papers.

Young Selden felt that another month of this sort of thing, would leave him melancholy mad. So he jammed some things into a light bag and started off for a tramp over Cumberland Mountain.

“I envy you,” said a decrepit old gentleman, with whom he was shaking hands in good-bye. “I was brought up in the mountain country fifty years ago. Gay young buck I was! Go in, my boy, and make love to a mountain pink! Ah, those jolly, barefooted, melting girls! No corsets, no back hair, no bangs, by Heaven!”

It was the afternoon of a hot September day. Young Selden had started that morning from Bloomington Springs in the direction of the Window Cliff—a ridge of rocks from which he had been told a very fine view could be obtained. The road grew rougher and wilder, seeming to lose itself in hills, stumps, and fields, and was as hard to trace out as a Bazar pattern. He finally struck a foot-path leading to a log-cabin, where a very brown woman sat peacefully smoking in the door-way.

“Good-day,” he said, taking off his hat.

The brown woman nodded in a friendly manner—the little short, meaning nod of the mountains, that serves, so to speak, as the pro-word of these silent folk. Young Selden inquired the way to Window Cliff.

“You carn't git thar 's the crow flies,” she drawled, slowly; “but I reckin my daughter k'n g'long with yer.”

“Aha!” thought Selden—“a mountain pink!”

“Take a cheer,” said the mother, rising and going within. He seated himself on the steps, and made friends with a dog or two.

A young girl soon appeared, tying on a sun-bonnet. She greeted him with a nod, the reproduction of her mother's, and drawled, in the same tone, “Reckin you couldn't git tu Winder Clift 'thout somebody to show you the way.”

“And you will be my guide?”

“ 'F co'se.”

They started off, young Selden talking airily. He soon felt, however, that he shouldn't make love to this mountain pink. To begin with, there was no pink about her. She was brown, like her mother.

“Coffee!” thought Selden, with a grim remembrance of a black, muddy liquid he had drunk a few nights before at a log-cabin, over which the very babies smacked their lips.

Her eyes had the melancholy of a cow's, without the ruminative expression that gives sufficient intellectuality to a cow's sad gaze. To put it tersely, they looked stupid. Her mouth curled down a little at each corner. Her hair was not visible under her pea-green sun-bonnet. Her dress of whitish linsey was skimpy in its cut, and she wriggled in it as if it were a loose skin she was trying to get out of.

She was not a talker. She looked at Selden with big eyes, and listened impassively. He elicited from her that her name was Sincerity Hicks; that her mother was the widder Hicks, and there were no others in the family; that she had never been to school, but could read, only she had no books.

“Should you like some?”

“Dunno. 'Pears 's if thar's too much to do t' fool over books.”

Perhaps because he had talked so much young Selden began to get out of breath. They had crossed a field, climbed a fence, and were descending a great hill, breaking a path as they walked. He panted, and could hardly keep up with Sincerity, though she seemed not to walk fast. But she got over the ground with a light-footed agility that aroused his envy. It looked easy, but, since he could not emulate her, he concluded that long practice had trained her walk to its perfection. He noticed, too, that she walked “parrot-footed,” placing each new track in the impression of the other. Imitating this, awkwardly enough, he got on better.

Reaching the clear level at the bottom of the hill, he saw at a glance that he had penetrated to a wild and virginal heart of beauty. Like a rough water-fall melting into a silver-flowing river, the vexatious and shaggy hill sloped to a dreaming valley. Streams ran about, quietly as thoughts, over pale rocks. Calacanthus bushes, speckled with their ugly little red blooms, filled the air with a fragrance like that of crushed strawberries. Upspringing from this low level of prettiness rose the glory of the valley—the lordly, the magnificent birch- trees. Their topmost boughs brushed against the cliffs that shut in the valley on the opposite side. How fine these cliffs were! They rose up almost perpendicularly, and, freed halfway of their height from the thick growth of underbrush, stood out in bare, bold picturesqueness. Window Cliffs! Aha! these were the windows. Two wide spaces, square and clean-blown, framing always a picture—now a bit of hard blue sky; other times pink flushes of sunrise, or the voluptuous moon and peeping eyes of stars.

“Want ter go t' the top?” inquired Sincerity.

“I—dunno,” rejoined Selden, lazily. Truth was, he did not wish to move. He liked the vast shadows, the cool deeps, the singing tones of the valley. Then he was sure he had a blister on his heel. Still, to come so far—“How long a walk is it?”

“Oh, jest a little piece—'bout a quarter.”

“Up and away, then!” cried young Selden.

A long “quarter” he found that walk. They crossed the valley, climbed a fence, and dropped into a corn-field to be hobbled over. Up and down those hideous little furrows—it was as sickening as tossing on a chopping sea. Selden stopped to rest. Sincerity, not a feather the worse, looked him over with mild patience.

“Lemme tote yo' haversack,” she said.

“No, no,” said the young man, with an honest blush. But he was reminded of a flask of brandy in his knapsack, of which he took a grateful swig.

“Now,” said his guide, as, the corn-field crossed, they emerged into forest—“now we begins to climb the mountain.”

Selden groaned. He had thought himself nearly on a level with the Window Cliff. To this day that climb is an excruciating memory to young Selden. He thought of


                        “Johnny Schnapps,
                        Who bust his shtraps,”

and wondered if the disaster was not suffered in going up a mountain. He felt himself melting away with heat. He knew that his face was blazing like a Christmas pudding, and dripping like a roast on a spit. He resigned the attempt to keep up with Sincerity. When they started on this excruciating tramp the droop of her pea-green sun-bonnet had seemed to him abject; now he knew that it expressed only contempt—contempt for the weakling and the stranger.

But one gets to the top of most things by trying hard enough, and they gained at last the rough crags that commanded the valley.

Ah! the fair, grand State! There was a spot for a blind man to receive sight! The young man drew a long breath as he gazed over the bewitching expanse. All so fresh, so unbreathed-on, the only hints of human life the little log-cabins perched about, harmonious as birds' nests amid their surroundings.

Sincerity Hicks stood fanning herself with the green sun-bonnet. There was something pretty about her, now that this disfigurement was removed. But a mountain pink—what a pretty implication in the name!— no.

“So this is Window Cliff?” he said. “And is there any particular name for that ledge yonder?”

“ 'Tis called Devil's Chimney, 'nd the cut between is Long Hungry Gap.”

“Long Hungry Gap?—where have I heard that famished name? Oh yes, some of Peters's scouts. You know Peters?”

“Yaas, I've heerd tell o' Jim Peters.”

Sincerity's drawl was not quickened, but Selden was surprised to see a light leap into her eyes as suddenly as a witch through a key-hole.

“These fellows had a room next to mine at the Bloomington Hotel,” Selden went on, “and the walls are like paper; so I heard all they said.”

“And what d' they say?”

“Well, that the captain was up the country on a moonshine raid; but that they were on the track of something better—had heard of a 'powerful big still' up in Long Hungry Gap—and would mash it up as soon as the captain got back.”

“D' they say when Peters wuz expected?”

“The next day.”

Sincerity tied on her bonnet.

“Guess you kin find the way back,” she remarked.

“Hello! what does this mean?”

“I've got somethin' t' attend to across the mounting.”

“I'll go with you.”

Sincerity stopped and turned a serious face. “Likely 's not you'll git hurt.”

“Oho! I'm in, if there's any chance of a scrimmage. Go ahead.”

She did go ahead. If the path had been vexatious before, now it was revengeful and aggressive. In fact, there was no path. But Sincerity, like love, found out a way. Suddenly, like a comic mask popped on a friend's face, something sinister and strange burst upon them through the familiar woods. Or, rather, they burst upon it—a wild-cat still, securely sheltered under an innocent combination of rocks, ferns, and magnolia-trees.

Four or five wild-looking fellows sprang up, their hands on their rifles.


Page 179

“None o' yo' shootin',” said Sincerity Hicks; “he's a friend.”

“Sho' he ain't a spy? 'Cause if that's the case, mister, you'll stay in these woods face down.”

“My impetuous moonshiner, I don't call myself the friend of you law-breakers? but I'm no spy. I brought the news to the faithful Sincerity of Captain Peters being on your track.”

Hurried questions were asked and answered. Several resolute voices suggested to fight it out, but all seemed to await the decision of an old man they called Jack, who leaned against a tub, with a touching expression of meekness under unmerited ill-luck.

“No, boys,” he said; “we ain't strong enough. But we'll run off what we can. Save the copper—we'll never git another so big an' satisfactory—an' the mash tun, an' as many of the tubs 's you can git off.”

It was a transformation scene. Things seemed to fly to pieces all at once, like a bomb-shell. The great copper still was hoisted on the shoulders of two or three men; the worm, the mash tun, the coolers, were taken down with celerity, and the unlucky moonshiners made off through the woods.

“Reckin th' rest 'll have ter go,” said Jack, pensively; “but tell you what, Sincerity Hicks, seems 's if I couldn't b'ar to have 'em git th' old sow an' her pigs.”

“Run 'em off.”

“They're too young, honey. Come 'ere.”

He led to a mimosa-tree behind a rock; and under its sensitive shade reposed, like Father Nile, a portly porcine mother, overrun with little, pink, blind pigs.

“Ain't you got a spar' tub?” asked the girl.

His face lighted. “I catches,” he said, gently.

He brought an empty whiskey puncheon, and covered the bottom with straw. Then he lifted the pink pigs into it, assisted by Sincerity and the elegant Selden.

The mother squealed. “Stuff her mouth,” ordered the old man.

Sincerity thrust an ear of corn into the open jaws.

“Now,” said Jack, “I'll run briefly through the woods, a-toting this, an' the old sow she'll follow—”


Page 181

“No, you don't, Jack Boddy!” said a quiet voice. “ Smell o' that.”

The ugly end of a rifle protruded itself. A Tennessee giant leaned against the rock. Peters? Of course it was Peters. What other man had that easy swagger, three feet of black beard, and as wide a grin in saying checkmate?

Jack Boddy smiled innocently.

“Why, captain, you see me jest attendin' to a litter o' pigs o' mine.”

“Yes, I see. An' my men is attendin to some pigs o yourn. Walk out, old 'coon.”

Peters's scouts were destroying all that was left of the mountain still.

“Whar's the others?” asked one of the men.

“I run this here still all by myself,” said Jack, with an air of ingenuous pride.

“What a lie!” said the captain. “Have you cut his copper boiler, boys?”

“ 'Tain't here.”

“Whar's your copper, Jack?”

“Gone to heaven,” said Jack, rolling his eyes.

“You can't make anything out o' Jack Boddy,” said a scout, grinning.

“Well, I've got you, anyhow,” cried the captain.

“An' the oldest one in the business, Jim.”

“An' I'll ketch the rest in time. Come on, boys. We'll stop at the widder Hicks's to-night. Can your mother put us up, Sissy?”

“Dunno,” said Sincerity.

“Mighty know-nothin' all of a sudden.” And turning to Selden: “You're a stranger, I see, mister. On the cirkit?”

“Not at all; only a traveller. Climbed the Window Cliff, and stumbled over here.”

“ 'F you'd been in these parts a year or so ago,” said an old man, relieving his mouth of the white whiskers he was chewing “you'd 'a seen a sight o' stills. They were thick as weevils in flour. But a man of might arose in the land, and he cleared 'em out.”

“Peters, I suppose?”

“Yessir—James Cook Peters, whose name ought to be Gideon, the Sword of the Lord; formerly an ignorant blacksmith of Tipper County, but advanced, by the grace of God an' the app'intment of gov'ment, to bust wild-cat stills, an' flood the earth with hot whiskey a-steamin' from the vats.”

“Any—er—murderin' involved in the blacksmithin' trade?” inquired Jack Boddy, with a casual air of interest.

Captain Peters turned an angry red, but said nothing.

“Becaze,” continued the artless old man, “it's a pretty bloody business you've took up now. How many men have you killed? Five, I b'lieve, with your own hand, an' twenty-one with yer men.”

“It wuz a fair fight,” said the captain. “I killed 'em honorable, an' wuz acquitted by the laws o' my country.”

“And though their numbers should be seventy times seven,” said the white-haired satellite of the captain, “and the land run with blood, this thing has got to be put a stop to.

“Look a-here, James Riggs,” said Jack, “this here moonshinin' is jest a wriggle-worm. Don't you know howsoever many pieces you chop 'em into, a fresh head 'll grow, an' a new worm swim away? Tell you, you cant stop moonshinin' 's long's there's an honest man in Old Hickory's State.”

“The Lord commanded, and the sun stood still,” said James Riggs; “ 'twon't be no harder job 'n that.”

As they talked they were descending the mountain. The noble Jack, alas! was handcuffed and guarded between two men. From time to time he scratched his head against the end of a rifle that was nearer his ear than some men would have liked. Evidently, though open to reproach, Mr. Boddy was a knight without fear.

The widow Hicks manifested no surprise at the coming of her guests. They found her with her hands plunged into a great tray of meal and water—enough to make hoe-cake for a regiment.

“Hurry up with supper, old woman,” said Captain Peters. “I'm dead tired. I rid all last night, an' ain't slept for three nights runnin'.”

At supper he could hardly keep his eyes open.

“I'll turn in right off,” he said.

There were some preliminaries to be gone through with—not of prayers or undressing, however. The captain eyed his prisoner thoughtfully, and remarked, “B'lieve they call you Slippery Jack?”

“ 'I am kind of hard to hold,” said Mr. Boddy, with a modest twinkle.

“So!”

Another moment, and Jack was tightly bound by a stout rope around the captain's own body. “I reckon you don't git away to-night.”

“Dunno!” said Jack.

The cabin had two rooms. In one the widow, Sincerity, and Mr. James Riggs went to bed. Mr. Boddy and the captain occupied the one bed in the other. A third of it was offered young Selden, but he preferred a blanket and the floor. The scouts were divided, and guarded doors and windows.

Young Selden could not sleep. The wild novelty of the situation excited him, and his aching limbs made him toss uneasily. A little fire smouldered on the hearth, and big, shapeless shadows clutched at each other in the corners. Plenty of sounds broke the silence. The captain, happy in having made a Siamese twin of Slippery Jack, snored as if he were choking to death. The guards talked and jested roughly. A whippoor-will's three wild notes sounded just above the roof. He wondered if Jack was asleep. No; there was a slight alert movement of his body, and young Selden caught the gleam of a wild blue eye under a shaggy eyebrow. With perceptions sharpened, intensified, Selden waited for he knew not what. Mr. Boddy's eye rolled upward—and what! a wilder, brighter eye, a star, shone with answering ray through a crevice in the roof. The crevice widened; other stars stole in sight. Selden felt as if his senses were leaving him. Now the crevice was obscured; and now something shining, glimmering, and cold as the light of eye or star, protruded itself cautiously as peeping mouse through the hole in the roof. It was the point of an open knife.

Selden almost sprang to his feet. Was he to witness murder? But somehow he trusted Jack Boddy—and he waited.

The knife was affixed to a knotted rope. It soon dangled within reach of Mr. Boddy's hand. And the sly moonshiner, with a silent grin at the sleeping captain, cut the ropes that bound them together. Then hand over hand, lightly as a sailor, he climbed the rope, slipped through the opening, and was gone,


                        “Over the hills, and far away.”

Young Selden wanted to shout. But he contented himself with a quiet chuckle, and went to sleep.

He was awakened in the morning by blue-blaze swearing. The captain was foaming at the mouth, James Riggs was wiping his eyes with a spotted handkerchief, and the scouts were swearing by all that was blessed or damned that they had not closed their eyes.

“How is it with you, stranger?” said Captain Peters. “Did you see or hear anything?”

“Oh no. I slept straight through,” said young Selden, with that cheerful readiness to lie that comes to great souls.

“Well, the devil must 'a helped him.”

“Lor, boys,” said the widow Hicks, with a slight twitch at the corners of her mouth, “you know Jack Boddy is a powerful cunnin' man— slippery as an eel.”

“Jest let me get these hands on him once more—jes' once more!”

“S'pose you'd kill him, wouldn't you?” said the widow, sweetly. “Lor, now, I s'pose you don't make no more of killin' a man 'n I do of wringin' a chicken's neck?”

“Don't excite him,” implored James Riggs; “he's powerful plagued over this misfortune.”

“Come to breakfast,” said the widow. “I won't make no laughin'-stawk of him 'f I can help it.”

“Damnation!” said the captain.

As for Sincerity Hicks, she looked as stolid as a wooden Indian. Selden pressed some money in her hand at parting, and whispered, “My dear girl, I was delighted; you climb like a cat.”

“Guess this 'll be good for some blue beads,” she said, without moving a muscle; “I've been a-wantin' some a right smart while.”

Young Selden shook with silent laughter as he strode away.

“A mountain pink!” he murmured. “Oh no, a bean stalk—a Cumberland bean stalk.”

 
 
 

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