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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter25)

2006-08-29 01:38

  Chapter XXV

  The little capital sits at the feet of hills on the edge of the Blue-grass, for the Kentucky River that sweeps past it has brought down those hills from the majestic highlands of the Cumberland. The great railroad of the State had to bore through rock to reach the place and clangs impudently through it along the main street. For many years other sections of the State fought to wrest this fountain-head of law and government from its moorings and transplant it to the heart of the Blue-grass, or to the big town on the Ohio, because, as one claimant said:

  "You had to climb a mountain, swim a river, or go through a hole to get to it."

  This geographical witticism cost the claimant his eternal political life, and the capital clung to its water, its wooded heaps of earth, and its hole in the gray wall. Not only hills did the river bring down but birds, trees, and even mountain mists, and from out the black mouth of that hole in the wall and into those morning mists stole one day a long train and stopped before the six great gray pillars of the historic old State-house. Out of this train climbed a thousand men, with a thousand guns, and the mists might have been the breath of the universal whisper:

  "The mountaineers are here!"

  Of their coming Jason had known for some time from Arch Hawn, and just when they were to come he had learned from Steve. The boy had not enough carfare even for the short ride of less than thirty miles to the capital, so he rode as far as his money would carry him and an hour before noon found him striding along on foot, his revolver bulging at his hip, his dogged eyes on the frozen turnpike. It was all over for him, he thought with the passionate finality of youth——his college career with its ambitions and dreams. He was sorry to disappoint Saint Hilda and John Burnham, but his pride was broken and he was going back now to the people and the life that he never should have left. He would find his friends and kinsmen down there at the capital, and he would play his part first in whatever they meant to do. Babe Honeycutt would be there, and about Babe he had not forgotten his mother's caution. He had taken his promise back from Marjorie merely to be free to act in a double emergency, but Babe would be safe until he himself was sure. Then he would tell his mother what he meant to do, or after it was done, and as to what she would then say the boy had hardly a passing wonder, so thin yet was the coating with which civilization had veneered him. And yet the boy almost smiled to himself to think how submerged that childhood oath was now in the big new hatred that had grown within him for the man who was threatening the political life of his people and his State——had grown steadily since the morning before he had taken the train in the mountains for college in the Blue-grass. On the way he had stayed all night in a little mountain town in the foot-hills. He had got up at dawn, but already, to escape the hot rays of an August sun, mountaineers were coming in on horseback from miles and miles around to hear the opening blast of the trumpet that was to herald forth their wrongs. Under the trees and along the fences they picketed their horses, thousands of them, and they played simple games patiently, or patiently sat in the shade of pine and cedar waiting, while now and then a band made havoc with the lazy summer air. And there, that morning, Jason had learned from a red- headed orator that "a vicious body of deformed Democrats and degenerate Americans" had passed a law at the capital that would rob the mountaineers of the rights that had been bought with the blood of their forefathers in 1776, 1812, 1849, and 1865. Every ear caught the emphasis on "rob" and "rights," the patient eye of the throng grew instantly alert and keen and began to burn with a sinister fire, while the ear of it heard further how, through that law, their ancient Democratic enemies would throw their votes out of the ballot-box or count them as they pleased——even for themselves. If there were three Democrats in a mountain county—— and the speaker had heard that in one county there was only one—— that county could under that law run every State and national election to suit itself. Would the men of the mountains stand that?——No! He knew them——that orator did. He knew that if the spirit of liberty, that at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock started blazing its way over a continent, lived unchanged anywhere, it dwelt, however unenlightened and unenlightening, in a heart that for an enemy was black with hate, red with revenge, though for the stranger, white and kind; that in an eagle's isolation had kept strung hard and fast to God, country, home; that ticking clock- like for a century without hurry or pause was beginning to quicken at last to the march-rhythm of the world——the heart of the Southern hills. Now the prophecy from the flaming tongue of that red-headed orator was coming to pass, and the heart of the Kentucky hills was making answer.

  It was just before noon when the boy reached the hill overlooking the capital. He saw the gleam of the river that came down from the mountains, and the home-thrill of it warmed him from head to foot. Past the cemetery he went, with a glimpse of the statue of Daniel Boone rising above the lesser dead. A little farther down was the castle-like arsenal guarded by soldiers, and he looked at them curiously, for they were the first his had ever seen. Below him was the gray, gloomy bulk of the penitentiary, which was the State building that he used to hear most of in the mountains. About the railway station he saw men slouching whom he knew to belong to his people, but no guns were now in sight, for the mountaineers had checked them at the adjutant-general's office, and each wore a tag for safe-keeping in his button-hole. Around the Greek portico of the capitol building he saw more soldiers lounging, and near a big fountain in the State-house yard was a Gatling-gun which looked too little to do much harm. Everywhere were the stern, determined faces of mountain men, walking the streets staring at things, shuffling in and out of the buildings; and, through the iron pickets of the yard fence, Jason saw one group cooking around a camp-fire. A newspaper man was setting his camera for them and the boy saw a big bearded fellow reach under his blanket. The photographer grasped his instrument and came flying through the iron gate, crying humorously, "Excuse me!"

  And then Jason ran into Steve Hawn, who looked at him with mild wonder and, without a question, drawled simply:

  "I kind o' thought you'd be along."

  "Is grandpap here?" asked the boy, and Steve shook his head.

  "He was too po'ly——but thar's more Hawns and Honeycutts in town than you kin shake a stick at, an' they're walkin' round hyeh jes like brothers. Hello, hyeh's one now!"

  Jason turned to see big Babe Honeycutt, who, seeing him, paled a little, smiled sheepishly, and, without speaking, moved uneasily away. Whereat Steve laughed.

  "Looks like Babe is kind o' skeered o' you fer some reason——Hello, they're comin'!"

  A group had gathered on the brick flagging between the frozen fountain and the Greek portico of the old capitol, and every slouching figure was moving toward it. Among them Jason saw Hawns and Honeycutts——saw even his old enemy, "little Aaron" Honeycutt, and he was not even surprised, for in a foot-ball game with one college on the edge of the Blue-grass, he had met a pair of envious, hostile eyes from the side-lines and he knew then that little Aaron, too, had gone away to school. From the habit of long hostility now, Jason swerved to the other edge of the crowd. From the streets, the boarding-houses, the ancient Capitol Hotel, gray, too, as a prison, from the State buildings in the yard, mountaineers were surging forth and massing before the capitol steps and around the big fountain. Already the Democrats had grown hoarse with protest and epithet. It was an outrage for the Republicans to bring down this "mountain army of intimidationists"——and only God knew what they meant to do or might do. The autocrat might justly and legally unseat a few Republicans, to be sure, but one open belief was that these "unkempt feudsmen and outlaws" would rush the legislative halls, shoot down enough Democrats to turn the Republican minority, no matter how small, into a majority big enough to enforce the ballot-proven will of the people. Wild, pale, horrified faces began to appear in the windows of the houses that bordered the square and in the buildings within the yard——perhaps they were going to do it now. Every soldier stiffened where he stood and caught his gun tightly, and once more the militia colonel looked yearningly at the Gatling-gun as helpless as a firecracker in the midst of the crowd, and then imploringly to the adjutant-general, who once again smiled and shook his head. If sinister in purpose, that mountain army was certainly well drilled and under the dominant spirit of some amazing leadership, for no sound, no gesture, no movement came from it. And then Jason saw a pale, dark young man, the secretary of state, himself a mountain man, rise above the heads of the crowd and begin to speak.

  "You are not here as revolutionists, criminals, or conspirators, because you are loyal to government and law."

  The words were big and puzzling to the untutored ears that heard them, but a grim, enigmatical smile was soon playing over many a rugged face.

  "You are here under your God-given bill of rights to right your wrongs through petitions to the legislators in whose hands you placed your liberties and your laws. And to show how non-partisan this meeting is, I nominate as chairman a distinguished Democrat and ex-Confederate soldier."

  And thereupon, before Jason's startled eyes, rose none other than Colonel Pendleton, who silently swept the crowd with his eyes.

  "I see from the faces before me that the legislators behind me shall not overturn the will of the people," he said quietly but sonorously, and then, like an invocation to the Deity, the dark young mountaineer slowly read from the paper in his hand how they were all peaceably assembled for the common good and the good of the State to avert the peril hovering over its property, peace, safety, and happiness. How they prayed for calmness, prudence, wisdom; begged that the legislators should not suffer themselves to be led into the temptation of partisan pride or party predilection; besought them to remember that their own just powers were loaned to them by the people at the polls, and that they must decide the people's will and not their own political preference; implored them not to hazard the subversion of that supreme law of the land; and finally begged them to receive, and neither despise nor spurn, their earnest petition, remonstrance, but preserve and promote the safety and welfare and, above all, the honor of the commonwealth committed to their keeping.

  There was no applause, no murmur even of approval——stern faces had only grown sterner, hard eyes harder, and that was all. Again the mountain secretary of state rose, started to speak, and stopped, looking over the upturned faces and toward the street behind them; and something in his look made every man who saw it turn his head. A whisper started on the outer edge of the crowd and ran backward, and men began to tiptoe and crane their necks. A tall figure was entering the iron gateway——and that whisper ran like a wind through the mass, the whisper of a hated name. The autocrat was coming. The mountaineers blocked his royal way to the speaker's chair behind them, but he came straight on. His cold, strong, crafty face was suddenly and fearlessly uplifted when he saw the hostile crowd, and a half-scornful smile came to his straight thin lips. A man behind him put a detaining hand on his shoulder, but he shook it off impatiently. Almost imperceptibly men swerved this way and that until there was an open way through them to the State-house steps, and through that human lane, nearly every man of which was at that moment longing to take his life, the autocrat strode, meeting every pair of eyes with a sneer of cold defiance. Behind him the lane closed; the crowd gasped at the daring of the man and slowly melted away. The mountain secretary followed him into the Senate with the resolutions he had just read, and the autocrat, still with that icy smile, received and passed them—— into oblivion.

  That night the mountain army disappeared as quickly as it had come, on a special train through that hole in the wall and with a farewell salute of gun and pistol into the drum-tight air of the little capital. But a guard of two hundred stayed, quartered in boarding-houses and the executive buildings, and hung about the capitol with their arms handy, or loitered about the contest-board meetings where the great "steal" was feared. So those meetings adjourned to the city hall where the room was smaller, admission more limited, and which was, as the Republicans claimed, a Democratic arsenal. Next day the Republicans asked for three days more for testimony and were given three hours by the autocrat. The real fight was now on, every soul knew it, and the crisis was at hand.

  And next morning it came, when the same bold figure was taking the same way to the capitol. A rifle cracked, a little puff of smoke floated from a window of a State building, and on the brick flagging the autocrat sank into a heap.

  The legislature was at the moment in session. The minority in the House was on edge for the next move. The secretary was droning on and beating time, for the autocrat was late that morning, but he was on his way. Cool, wary, steeled to act relentlessly at the crucial moment, his hand was within reach of the prize, and the play of that master-hand was on the eve of a master-stroke. Two men hurried into the almost deserted square, the autocrat and his body-guard, a man known in the annals of the State for his ready use of knife or pistol. The rifle spoke and the autocrat bent double, groaned harshly, clutched his right side, and fell to his knees. Men picked him up, the building emptied, and all hurried after the throng gathering around the wounded man. There was the jostling of bodies, rushing of feet, the crowding of cursing men to the common centre of excitement. A negro pushed against a white man. The white man pulled his pistol, shot him dead, and hardly a look was turned that way. The doors of the old hotel closed on the wounded man, his friends went wild, and chaos followed. It was a mountain trick, they cried, and a mountaineer had turned it. The lawless hillsmen had come down and brought their cowardly custom of ambush with them. The mountain secretary of state was speeding away from the capitol at the moment the shot was fired, and that was a favorite trick of alibi in the hills. That shot had come from his window. Within ten minutes the terrified governor had ringed every State building with bayonets and had telegraphed for more militia. Nobody, not even the sheriff, could enter to search for the assassin: what else could this mean but that there was a conspiracy——that the governor himself knew of the plot to kill and was protecting the slayer? About the State-house, even after the soldiers had taken possession, stood rough-looking men, a wing of the army of intimidation. A mob was forming at the hotel, and when a company of soldiers was assembled to meet it, a dozen old mountaineers, looking in the light of the camp-fires like the aged paintings of pioneers on the State-house walls, fell silently and solemnly in line with Winchesters and shot-guns. The autocrat's bitterest enemies, though unregretting the deed, were outraged at the way it was done, and the rush of sympathy in his wake could hardly fail to achieve his purpose now. That night even, the Democratic members tried to decide the contest in the autocrat's favor. That night the governor adjourned the legislature to a mountain town, and next morning the legislators found their chambers closed. They tried to meet at hotel, city hall, court- house; and solons and soldiers raced through the streets and never could the solons win. But at nightfall they gathered secretly and declared the autocrat governor of the commonwealth. And the wild rumor was that the wounded man had passed before his name was sealed by the legislative hand, and that the feet of a dead man had been put into a living one's shoes. That night the news flashed that one mountaineer as assassin and a mountain boy as accomplice had been captured and were on the way to jail. And the assassin was Steve and the boy none other than Jason Hawn.

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