THE WAR

Well, but it was a snug little cabin! The mist-wraiths might drift by
the window, might even pause to thrust their spectral faces against the
pane, but it mattered nothing to those who were safe and snug within.
Aunt Zillah cooked her special stew for supper, and served it with
potatoes baked in the coals, raised biscuit, and honey and dainties for
dessert. Keefe had brought out his borrowed guitar and kept the room
ringing with his melodies. The girls saw that the occasion was to be a
festive one, and put on the brightest frocks they could find in their
trunks.

Then, with the fire leaping and the candles and lamps lighted and supper
laid out with the pink dishes and the white doilies, the place was
charming indeed. To Miss Zillah, for the first time in her life removed
from oversight of her elder sister, and playing at being the mother of a
family, it was an experience that made her shy, middle-aged heart leap
within her. To Carin, used to luxury and beauty and her parent’s
unceasing care, it was an adventure in independence; to Azalea,
accustomed to changes, to people of many sorts, to both rough and smooth
living, it was one more chapter in a book destined to be filled with
curious incidents. To Keefe—but let him speak for himself.

“This place,” he said, “looks to me singularly like Paradise. My own
particular habitation is as damp and cold as the Mammoth Cave. My bed is
done up in oilskins, and my easel is under the bed. Every stick of wood
I have is drenched, and the field mice have got at my food.”

“Poor orphan,” laughed Carin, and then stopped on the word, wondering if
she had not spoken the truth concerning him. He had told nothing of
himself, save that he hoped to be an artist, and that he already had
studied at the New York Academy of Design.

“Well,” he retorted, giving no heed to her embarrassment, “I
congratulated myself when I borrowed that tent from Mr. Rowantree. I saw
it wouldn’t keep water out. I said to myself, ‘The first time we have a
downpour I’ll have to take refuge with the nearest neighbor.’ I saw to
it that you were that neighbor. To-night, of course, I shall put in an
application for the guest chamber at Mis’ Cassie McEvoy’s, and I’ll sleep
in the room with the medicine-bottle decoration, but until the clock
tells me it is really night, here I stay. Don’t I, Miss Pace?”

“Indeed you do,” she returned. “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

She had got over the slight prejudice she felt against him at first
meeting. He was too obliging, too amiable, too wistful, for her to keep
him at a distance. Miss Zillah’s heart was a particularly soft one,
though for conscience sake she could be stern.

“I hear you had only one pupil to-day,” she said to the girls when they
were seated at the table.

“And she underwent a curious transformation,” said Carin. “She came to
us Paralee Panther. She went away Louisa Marr. Of course we can’t call
her that just yet, as people wouldn’t know whom we were talking about.
But when she goes away to school, as I mean she shall, she’ll bear a
proper Christian name.”

Between Azalea and Carin the grim story of the Panther’s life was told.

“And now,” concluded Azalea, “my heart is set on rescuing that poor Mr.
Panther. Why, it will be like bringing a man from a mine—or taking him
from the Bastille. Oh, we mustn’t wait. We must set about the rescue at
once!”

“It won’t be so easy as you imagine,” said Miss Zillah, with a sigh.
“When people get away down like that, they don’t seem to want to be
disturbed. They enjoy their misery. You needn’t be surprised if after
you get to the poor man, you find him quite unwilling to let you do
anything for him.”

“Oh, we won’t even think of such a thing as that,” cried Azalea, with her
usual impatience at the mention of obstacles. “When can we go to him,
Keefe?”

“Not before Saturday, of course. We ought to take a physician with us,
oughtn’t we?”

“Of course we ought,” said Azalea. “Carin, couldn’t we telegraph back
home and get Doctor Stevenson to come up?”

So they wrote out a telegram which was sent to Bee Tree the following day
and from there telephoned to the nearest telegraph station. But to their
disappointment they received the reply from Dr. Stevenson that he had a
very critical case in hand which he could not leave. Carin wired
elsewhere, but without success, and they were on the point of postponing
the visit when, on Friday, there dawned upon their view the familiar
figure of Haystack Thompson, their old friend with the fiddle. With his
“haystack” mop of hair in wilder confusion than ever—for it had grown
grayer and more wiry every month—with his kind, keen, rolling eyes
looking extraordinarily large, and his spare frame thinned, as it seemed,
to the very bone, he appeared at the schoolhouse just before closing, and
the moment Azalea’s eyes fell on him, she felt that he was the person to
help them out. Just how he would do it she did not stop to think, but
ever since she had known him she had counted on his power to help.

He was lending his aid to some one at that moment evidently, for by the
hand he led a small boy whom neither Carin nor Azalea had seen before,
but the moment that Azalea noticed Bud Coulter starting from his seat,
she knew the newcomer for Skully Simms, the nephew of the Coulters’
hereditary enemy, and the boy who had on several occasions peeped in at
the windows of the schoolroom which he dared not enter.

All week things had gone moderately well. The school now had twenty-four
pupils, one of them a girl older than her teachers, another a married
woman, Mrs. McIntosh, who, having brought her painfully shy little
daughter to school had been obliged to stay with her. Mrs. McIntosh had
at first meant only to look on, but the example set by the children had
been too much for her, and she was now conning her first reader beside an
eight year old girl. Azalea and Carin had almost ceased looking for
trouble, and it was with a sharp shock of alarm that they saw Bud Coulter
spring to his feet and shake a hard young fist in the direction of the
quivering Skully.

“No Simms can’t come to this here school while I’m here!” he shouted.
“You git out o’ here, Skully Simms, you hear?”

Simms cast one glance behind him as if for flight, but the firm hand of
his friend Haystack Thompson upon his shoulder held him; then the second
glance made him aware of all the children rising from their seats, of the
flaming eyes and distorted mouth of Bud Coulter, and the next moment all
of his fears vanished in a flare of the old inherited hate. He drew in
his breath sharply through his teeth, leaped forward, all bunched up like
an animal, and the next thing that anybody knew, the two boys were
struggling together in the center of the schoolroom.

The fiddler might have managed these two boys, but he saw in a moment
that he would have trouble coping with what was likely to follow. For
generations the neighbors who bore the names of the children within that
school had taken sides in the long and dark struggle between the Simms
and the Coulters, and now, in a flash, all their old loyalty to the “mean
fighters” of their mountain was upon them. They leaped to their feet,
got from the floor on to the seats, shrieking and stamping to cheer on
their favorites. It was not a “scrap.” It was a war—an old war—in which
men of both names had fallen, and for which they all thought it honorable
to fight to the finish.

Azalea, sitting stark still at her desk, saw, with wide-stretched eyes,
her peaceful schoolroom turned into something resembling a cave of angry
wildcats. Moreover, she knew enough about such quarrels to imagine what
the outcome might be.

“Carin,” she shrilled to her friend who had turned from the blackboard
and stood paralyzed at what she beheld, “we must think—we must _think_!”

But there was little time for thinking. They could see that in a few
moments more every boy in the room would be at the throat of some other
boy, all for the glory of the old war cries: “Coulter!” “Simms!”

Just then, as Azalea was discovering how unlikely her “thinking” was to
be of any use, an extraordinary sound smote her ears. It rolled out like
thunder, it came in volleys like pistol shots, it was so strange, so
loud, so mocking, that all save the fight-crazed boys at grips on the
floor turned to see what it was.

And what they saw was Haystack Thompson laughing!

He was leaning against the door post and he was laughing as if he were
Jove and could find nothing half so amusing as the capers of earth-men.
He laughed on and on, more and more mockingly, more and more terribly.
His mirth was an insult to those who were engaged in that senseless
combat. It held them in contempt; it made nothing of them. The
children, amazed, fixed their eyes on him. They did not like that
laughter. It raged and roared at their ancient mountain quarrel; it put
them among the fools of the world. Their anger turned from each other to
the man. They forgot the writhing boys upon the floor, and drew towards
Haystack Thompson, resentment in their faces.

Just then, they were given another surprise. Azalea had at last thought
to some purpose. No one saw her save Carin, as she took the full water
pail from the bench and advanced with it toward these last silly clansmen
of the Simms and Coulters; but Carin, quick to catch the idea, seized a
second pail, and a moment later a deluge of water descended upon the
fighters, and two gasping, strangling boys, their grip relaxed, lay upon
the floor.

Haystack Thompson was a quick-witted ally. He bounded forward and
grasping Coulter by the shirt collar—a stout shirt it was, made of
home-spun—plumped him down in a seat, then seeing him still in the throes
of strangulation, proceeded to pound him lustily on the back. Azalea,
meantime, had pulled the smaller boy to his feet. He was bleeding at the
nose; one eye was closed and he was blubbering and choking. She wiped
his face with a firm and determined hand, and led him to the front of the
room.

“Go for more water,” she commanded, finding that the blood still spurted
from the poor injured nose. The children held back sullenly, but Paralee
Panther picked up a pail and went to do her bidding. The fiddler’s
fearful laughter having ceased, a strange, shamed quiet hung over the
room, broken only by the angry snortings and sobbing of the two fighters.
And then the fiddler began to laugh again, but not in the old way. This
time he laughed as if at the funniest joke that man ever heard. He began
gently, like one amused, he went on to heights of wild and reckless mirth
which reduced the children, and Azalea and Carin with them, to helpless,
suffering spasms of laughter. There was no resisting such mirth. It
spread like fire, and once alight, it seemed as if nothing could ever
extinguish it.

Then, suddenly, the wizard released them from the spell. He stopped and
looked about him at his helpless victims. He shook his head at them
sadly as if he regretted their folly, and drawing faithful “Betsy,” his
fiddle, the one close friend of his lonely life, from its case, began to
play. It was quiet music, almost like a hymn, and kind music, like
friendship which endures. Paying no attention to the gasps and gurgles
of those he had led into folly, he went on steadily with his playing.
Deep, full and rich were the chords he played; clear and high and serene
was the melody, and the troubled laughter died before such sounds.
Little Simms with his aching face and humiliated spirit, was struggling
to get the better of his sobs. Coulter, the conqueror, had folded his
arms across his unbuttoned shirt and sat there waiting for what might
happen next.

What happened next was that Haystack Thompson began to talk. He did not
cease playing, but the music that came from his instrument was as soft as
the summer wind in the trees.

“There’s something on my mind,” he said in his deep, kind voice, “that I
want to pass on to you-all. You’re young and I’m old, and it’s fitting
that what I’ve learned by living a long time should be handed on to you,
who ain’t lived long and consequently hain’t had the chance to make the
mistakes I have.

“The constitution of the United States says that all men are born free
and equal. Now, in a way that there saying is true, and in another way
it ain’t. There’s differences in men and in the chances that come to
them, that can’t be gainsaid nor got around. But it is true that all men
have an equal right to certain things. They’ve an equal right to be
free, and an equal right to the good things God made—to sun and air and
water and food. They’ve a right to feel happy and a right to be good.
What’s more, they’ve got a right to learning—got a right to know what’s
hid in books and in Nature. Anybody who tries to take away these rights
from another is a mean cuss. He’s unfitten for other men to deal with.
He’s got the soul of a wolf, and it seems like he should be hunted out of
the ha’nts of men. Only that wouldn’t do, for then we’d be taking away
the greatest right of all from him—the right to be good. You can’t make
an outlaw of a man and expect him to be good. No, you’ve got to forgive
him and help him—you’ve got to show him what his rights are, what the
rights of his neighbors are.

“I’m a mountain man and my forbears were mountain men. I know the
feelings of folks raised in the mountains. I know they’re brave, and
kind to friends and mean to foes. I know they’ve got sense and patience,
and that they’ve got folly and madness in them too. These here quarrels,
like the one that broke out a few minutes ago between these two young
bantams—friends of mine, both of them, and good bantams—are a wicked
waste. That’s what they are. They waste human lives and human
happiness. They make enemies out of folks that had ought to be friends,
and they leave little children orphans and make our people the laughing
stock of the world.

“For my part, I don’t wonder that the world laughs at them. I laugh at
them too. They’re so behind the times—they’re so foolish—so like the
wild animals out there in the mountain. They don’t seem to realize what
it is to be men and to stand up fair and square, taking life and
rejoicing, and letting other men take it and rejoice. They don’t seem to
understand that hate is like a disease and that it causes rot at the
heart and makes a man as disgusting as rotten fruit or a sick animal.
They don’t understand it, because they’ve grown up in the blindness and
sin of it. Why, I used to feel like that myself. I didn’t come of a
quarreling family, and us Thompsons had no war of our own, but we took
sides with them that had wars, and I’d have been as silly as the rest of
you if I hadn’t been taught better by—” he hesitated and looked about him
with a half-shy smile, drew his bow with thrilling resonance thrice
across the deepest strings of his fiddle, and went on—“by my old fiddle
here. Maybe you’ll understand and maybe you won’t. Music has laws.
They are laws that run through everything that’s good and true—they run
through the things you’re studying there in your books and they run
through Nature too. They come from God and if we study them right they
help us to know that we’re God’s children.




“I’ve had to study it all out for myself, but I know what I know. And
the grandest thing I know is that every man has an equal right to his
life, to his liberty and to his learning. You may be friends and you may
be foes, but life and liberty and learning are things that friend and foe
have equal rights to—equal rights! Think of it awhile. Think of it as
you walk up and down this here mountain side. Think of it when you go to
bed at night. I’m an old man—an old mountain man—and you’re just as good
as my kin, you-all are. And I tell you, it will be a shame to you what
folks will spread over the whole countryside if you drive these two young
ladies away when they’ve given up their ease and their friends for the
whole summer long to come up here to learn you.”

He ceased speaking, but his bow continued its magic movement back and
forth across the strings. For a moment or two he played a curious melody
with sharp, bright notes, like the sparks from a blazing pine. Then he
spoke again.

“Skully Simms ain’t got no pa; he ain’t got no ma. He lives with his
uncle and makes out the best he can. He’s pretty much alone, and it
ain’t natural for children to be alone. All the rest of you can go to
homes where there is folks waiting for you. But this boy has just his
uncle. That ain’t much like having your ma and your brothers and sisters
and your pa watching out to see you coming home and speeding you on your
way. He’s been wanting to come up here to school ever since it opened.
He _has_ come up here and peered in the windows, and honed to come in.
But he didn’t durst. Why? Because some of his folks, that perhaps he
never so much as laid eyes on, took a dislike to some of Coulter’s folks,
that Coulter never knew. Do you wonder it made me laugh and mock?”

He played on, happily. The tune took dancing feet to itself and set the
hearts if not the feet of the children, to a gay rhythm. Once he lifted
the bow.

“Do you wonder?” he thundered at them in the pause. Then he went on with
the merry tune. And now, indeed, the feet of the children began to keep
time.

“Say, Coulter,” he cried as if he were calling out the numbers of a
dance, “will you cut it out?”

Coulter, never a hangdog, sat with his arms still folded. His blue eyes
met the old fiddler’s steadily.

“Coulter, you’ve got brains. You’re not a dolt. You see the point of
what I told you. Cut it out, Coulter, will you, for the sake of these
here young ladies, and for my sake, and for the sake of learning,
Coulter!”

How happy the music was—how far away from hate and meanness and grudging!
Coulter looked squarely across at poor little Simms, who seemed very
small and thin. His spare arms showed through his torn shirt; his wisp
of a face was marred and blackened by Coulter’s fist. Suddenly, Bud
Coulter saw the point. Yes, “l’arnin’” was a thing that had neither to
do with friend or foe.

“Cut it out, Coulter?” questioned Haystack, vociferously.

“Yessir,” called back Coulter. “If he wants to come to school, I’ll keep
my hands off him.”

“Honor bright?”

“Yessir. When I give my word, I keep it.”

“Glory be!” shouted Haystack. And “Glory be!” shouted “Betsy,” the
violin.

“School over?” queried Haystack.

Azalea nodded.

“School’s over,” announced the fiddler. “And this is where we march.”

He started down the aisle, his huge head with its wild hair bent above
the violin, and from the little great instrument came the sounds of
marching feet. They were victorious feet; feet marching in brotherhood;
faithful, determined feet. Falteringly, shyly, the children fell in with
him. It was not, indeed, in human power to resist that march. Carin,
joining with light step, Azalea, marching more seriously, courage and
determination in her face, removed the last hesitation of the laggards.
Skully Simms’ tears dried on his swollen face. He got up, half
shame-facedly and fell into the march, and so marching forgot his shame
and his resentment. And Bud Coulter, springing at last to his feet,
tramped with the others. He was, after all, a “good sport.” He had
spoken out his feelings, and now, head up—just a touch defiantly—he fell
in line. They all went out of the schoolhouse so, and on to where the
various paths diverged, running this way and that over the mountainside,
to end in the little cabins where the children lived.

Haystack sped them on their way. Then he dropped his instrument and
turned to Azalea who stood beside him.

“Well, honey-bird,” he said with fatherly tenderness, “how does the world
treat you?”