A Knight of the Cumberland

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Author: John Fox

V Back to the Hills

Winter drew a gray veil over the mountains, wove into it tiny jewels of frost and turned it many times into a mask of snow, before spring broke again among them and in Marston’s impatient heart. No spring had ever been like that to him. The coming of young leaves and flowers and bird-song meant but one joy for the hills to him—the Blight was coming back to them. All those weary waiting months he had clung grimly to his work. He must have heard from her sometimes, else I think he would have gone to her; but I knew the Blight’s pen was reluctant and casual for anybody, and, moreover, she was having a strenuous winter at home. That he knew as well, for he took one paper, at least, that he might simply read her name. He saw accounts of her many social doings as well, and ate his heart out as lovers have done for all time gone and will do for all time to come.

I, too, was away all winter, but I got back a month before the Blight, to learn much of interest that had come about. The Hon. Samuel Budd had ear-wagged himself into the legislature, had moved that Court-House, and was going to be State Senator. The Wild Dog had confined his reckless career to his own hills through the winter, but when spring came, migratory-like, he began to take frequent wing to the Gap. So far, he and Marston had never come into personal conflict, though Marston kept ever ready for him, and several times they had met in the road, eyed each other in passing and made no hipward gesture at all. But then Marston had never met him when the Wild Dog was drunk—and when sober, I took it that the one act of kindness from the engineer always stayed his hand. But the Police Guard at the Gap saw him quite often— and to it he was a fearful and elusive nuisance. He seemed to be staying somewhere within a radius of ten miles, for every night or two he would circle about the town, yelling and firing his pistol, and when we chased him, escaping through the Gap or up the valley or down in Lee. Many plans were laid to catch him, but all failed, and finally he came in one day and gave himself up and paid his fines. Afterward I recalled that the time of this gracious surrender to law and order was but little subsequent to one morning when a woman who brought butter and eggs to my little sister casually asked when that "purty slim little gal with the snappin’ black eyes was a-comin’ back." And the little sister, pleased with the remembrance, had said cordially that she was coming soon.

Thereafter the Wild Dog was in town every day, and he behaved well until one Saturday he got drunk again, and this time, by a peculiar chance, it was Marston again who leaped on him, wrenched his pistol away, and put him in the calaboose. Again he paid his fine, promptly visited a "blind Tiger," came back to town, emptied another pistol at Marston on sight and fled for the hills.

The enraged guard chased him for two days and from that day the Wild Dog was a marked man. The Guard wanted many men, but if they could have had their choice they would have picked out of the world of malefactors that same Wild Dog.

Why all this should have thrown the Hon. Samuel Budd into such gloom I could not understand—except that the Wild Dog had been so loyal a henchman to him in politics, but later I learned a better reason, that threatened to cost the Hon. Sam much more than the fines that, as I later learned, he had been paying for his mountain friend.

Meanwhile, the Blight was coming from her Northern home through the green lowlands of Jersey, the fat pastures of Maryland, and, as the white dresses of schoolgirls and the shining faces of darkies thickened at the stations, she knew that she was getting southward. All the way she was known and welcomed, and next morning she awoke with the keen air of the distant mountains in her nostrils and an expectant light in her happy eyes. At least the light was there when she stepped daintily from the dusty train and it leaped a little, I fancied, when Marston, bronzed and flushed, held out his sunburnt hand. Like a convent girl she babbled questions to the little sister as the dummy puffed along and she bubbled like wine over the midsummer glory of the hills. And well she might, for the glory of the mountains, full-leafed, shrouded in evening shadows, blue-veiled in the distance, was unspeakable, and through the Gap the sun was sending his last rays as though he, too, meant to take a peep at her before he started around the world to welcome her next day. And she must know everything at once. The anniversary of the Great Day on which all men were pronounced free and equal was only ten days distant and preparations were going on. There would be a big crowd of mountaineers and there would be sports of all kinds, and games, but the tournament was to be the feature of the day.

"A tournament?" "Yes, a tournament," repeated the little sister, and Marston was going to ride and the mean thing would not tell what mediaeval name he meant to take. And the Hon. Sam Budd—did the Blight remember him? (Indeed, she did) —had a "dark horse," and he had bet heavily that his dark horse would win the tournament—whereat the little sister looked at Marston and at the Blight and smiled disdainfully. And the Wild Dog— DID she remember him? I checked the sister here with a glance, for Marston looked uncomfortable and the Blight saw me do it, and on the point of saying something she checked herself, and her face, I thought, paled a little.

That night I learned why—when she came in from the porch after Marston was gone. I saw she had wormed enough of the story out of him to worry her, for her face this time was distinctly pale. I would tell her no more than she knew, however, and then she said she was sure she had seen the Wild Dog herself that afternoon, sitting on his horse in the bushes near a station in Wildcat Valley. She was sure that he saw her, and his face had frightened her. I knew her fright was for Marston and not for herself, so I laughed at her fears. She was mistaken—Wild Dog was an outlaw now and he would not dare appear at the Gap, and there was no chance that he could harm her or Marston. And yet I was uneasy.

It must have been a happy ten days for those two young people. Every afternoon Marston would come in from the mines and they would go off horseback together, over ground that I well knew—for I had been all over it myself—up through the gray-peaked rhododendron-bordered Gap with the swirling water below them and the gray rock high above where another such foolish lover lost his life, climbing to get a flower for his sweetheart, or down the winding dirt road into Lee, or up through the beech woods behind Imboden Hill, or climbing the spur of Morris’s Farm to watch the sunset over the majestic Big Black Mountains, where the Wild Dog lived, and back through the fragrant, cool, moonlit woods. He was doing his best, Marston was, and he was having trouble —as every man should. And that trouble I knew even better than he, for I had once known a Southern girl who was so tender of heart that she could refuse no man who really loved her she accepted him and sent him to her father, who did all of her refusing for her. And I knew no man would know that he had won the Blight until he had her at the altar and the priestly hand of benediction was above her head.

Of such kind was the Blight. Every night when they came in I could read the story of the day, always in his face and sometimes in hers; and it was a series of ups and downs that must have wrung the boy’s heart bloodless. Still I was in good hope for him, until the crisis came on the night before the Fourth. The quarrel was as plain as though typewritten on the face of each. Marston would not come in that night and the Blight went dinnerless to bed and cried herself to sleep. She told the little sister that she had seen the Wild Dog again peering through the bushes, and that she was frightened. That was her explanation—but I guessed a better one.

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Chicago: John Fox, "V Back to the Hills," A Knight of the Cumberland, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Knight of the Cumberland (New York: George E. Wood, 1912), Original Sources, accessed January 27, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=858PMJEIGM4HFL7.

MLA: Fox, John. "V Back to the Hills." A Knight of the Cumberland, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Knight of the Cumberland, Vol. 22, New York, George E. Wood, 1912, Original Sources. 27 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=858PMJEIGM4HFL7.

Harvard: Fox, J, 'V Back to the Hills' in A Knight of the Cumberland, ed. . cited in 1912, A Knight of the Cumberland, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=858PMJEIGM4HFL7.