"I hev triumphed ag'in' my enemies time 'n' ag'in," he said. "The Lord air on my side, 'n' I gits a better Christian ever' year." The old man spoke with the sincerity of a barbarism that has survived the dark ages, and, holding the same faith, the miller had no answer. It was old Gabe indeed who had threatened to send to the Governor for soldiers, and this he would have done, perhaps, had there not been one hope left, and only one. A week had gone, and there was no word from Rufe Stetson. Up on Thunderstruck Knob the old Stetson mother was growing pitiably eager and restless. Every day she slipped like a ghost through the leafless woods and in and out the cabin, kindling hatred. At every dawn or dusk she was on her porch peering through the dim light for Rufe Stetson. Steve Marcum was ill at ease. Rome Stetson alone seemed unconcerned, and his name was on every gossiping tongue.
He took little interest and no hand in getting ready for the war. He forbade the firing of a gun till Rufe came back, else Steve should fight his fight alone. He grew sullen and morose. His old mother's look was a thorn in his soul, and he stayed little at home. He hung about the mill, and when Isom became bedfast, the big mountaineer, who had never handled anything but a horse, a plough, or a rifle, settled him-self, to the bewilderment of the Stetsons, into the boy's duties, and nobody dared question him. Even old Gabe jested no longer. The matter was too serious.
Meanwhile the winter threw off the last slumbrous mood of autumn, as a sleeper starts from a dream. A fortnight was gone, and still no message came from the absent leader. One shore was restive, uneasy; the other confident, mocking. Between the two, Rome Stetson waited his chance at the mill.
DAY was whitening on the Stetson shore. Across the river the air was still sharp with the chill of dawn, and the mists lay like flocks of sheep under shelter of rock and crag. A peculiar cry radiated from the Lewallen cabin with singular resonance on the crisp air-the mountain cry for straying cattle. A soft low came from a distant patch of laurel, and old Jasper's girl, Martha, folded. her hands like a conch at her mouth, and the shrill cry again startled the air.
Ye better come, ye pieded cow-brute." Picking up a cedar piggin, she stepped from the porch toward the meek voice that had answered her. Temper and exertion had brought the quick blood to her face. Her head was bare, her thick hair was loosely coiled, and her brown arms were naked almost to the shoulder. At the stable a young mountaineer was overhauling his riding-gear.
Air you goin' to ride the hoss to-day, Jas?" she asked, querulously.
"That's jes whut I was aimin' to do. I'm a-goin' to town."
Well, I 'lowed I was goin' to mill to-day. The co'n is 'mos' gone."