Big Jim McCurdy had been lost for twenty-four hours, and he was weak from hunger and exhaustion. January on this exposed mountain was bitterly cold, and he had spent all of the previous night huddled in a small cave. He had kept from freezing by the small fire he had been able to kindle, despite the dampness of the dead branches he had used. When, in the first dusk of his second day on Old Hungry, he saw the tiny log cabin, ancient and weather-beaten, tucked under an overhang of the mountain, he knew the happiest moment of his life.
He stumbled, slid and fell down the last of the slope to the dooryard of the cabin, and went to his knees. As he tried to pull himself erect, the door of the cabin swung open, and the biggest, fiercest-looking dog he had ever seen crouched a few feet from him, an ugly growl deep in its throat. Above Jim and the dog, a girl's sharp voice cried out. He saw her standing in the doorway of the cabin, tense and straight, a shotgun held menacingly in her hands and aimed directly at him.
"Who're you--and whut do you want?" demanded the girl.
"Call off this dog!" Jim said.
"Seth won't hurt you, less'n I tell him to," said the girl. "Whut do you want?"
Jim grinned weakly. "A little of that famed southern hospitality would be nice," he answered. "I've been lost on the mountain since yesterday, and I'm damned near starved and half-frozen. How about letting me in long enough to get warm?"
The dog crouched and growled, and cast a glance over his shoulder at the girl, who was studying Jim sharply.
"Well--I reckon you can come in to the fire, effen you'll behave yourself," she said. Then she spoke to the dog, her tone warm and soothing. "Let him be, Seth, boy. Reckon he's all right."
"Thanks," said Jim, and managed to pull his tall body erect and walk without falling, to the door, where the girl stood aside, the gun held ready, the dog pacing at his heels.
The cabin had a huge fireplace, and big logs were blazing in it. Jim winced as the warmth set his half-frozen body to tingling painfully. He bent above the fire, removing his thick woolen gloves to chafe his hands that were stiff and aching.
The girl and the dog followed him in. The dog stood watching him, alert, ready at a word from the girl to leap upon the intruder. Jim kept glancing nervously at the dog.
The girl pushed the heavy door shut, dropped the thick bar into place across it, and went quickly out of the room into a lean-to kitchen where Jim could see an old, wood-burning stove which glowed with a supper fire. In a moment, the girl came back, carrying a thick white mug which she thrust at Jim.
"That'll warm you up," she said curtly, standing carefully out of reach of him.
As Jim put out his hand for the mug, the dog growled softly and stood between him and the girl.
Anticipating that the mug would contain some of the corn whiskey so well-known in the mountain country, Jim drank deeply, before the fiery stuff, with its bitter, acrid taste made itself known. He gasped, as the roof of his mouth exploded, and the fiery, bitter liquid burned its way down his throat. Tears sprang to his eyes and he pushed the mug away from him on the fieldstone hearth, eyeing it with horror.
"The Borgias couldn't do better!" he gasped when speech was possible again. He was infuriated to discern a glint of amusement in her coal-black eyes.
"I dunno who the Borgias are. Reckon they ain't livin' on this mountain, or I'd know 'em," she said gently, and now her deep-red mouth was touched by an impish smile. "That there's yarb-medicine. Do you a sight o' good. Keeps you from havin' the lung fever."
"I don't doubt it. No self-respecting germ could stand up to a concoction like that," Jim assured her.
"Better get the rest of it down," counseled the girl. "Like I said, it'll keep you from havin' the lung fever."
"Thanks, but no!" said Jim firmly, and eyed the half-emptied mug with hostility. "I'm feeling much better already. Besides, I'd rather have lung fever than third-degree burns."
"Whut're you doin' on the mountain this time of year?" she demanded sharply, suspicion clouding her snapping black eyes, erasing the twinkle.
"I'm on a hiking trip," Jim told her.
"In January? Mister, you sure are simple. Don't nobody, not even the mountain folks, go strayin' round Ole Hungry in January," she protested, and her suspicion was obviously deepening. "City folks, sure. Summertimes, the mountains is plumb infested with gals wearin' britches an' them little drawers they calls shorts--and fellas all got up in funny-lookin' clothes. 'Sakes! It's a scandal how they get done up to go swimmin'. Sometimes I reckon the fish mus' be blushin' to swim in the same lake with them. There's a heap o' that in the summertime, but in January? I ain't believin' you!"
"That's too bad, but that's usually the way it goes when a fellow tells the absolute truth," Jim said. His tone was serious now, almost bitter. "It just happens that I had a yen to go exploring. I got lost. And now, if by any chance you could spare a bite to eat--for which, of course, I'll be very glad to pay you generously--I'll be on my way."
"Ain't no sense you gettin' all high-and-mighty 'cause I don't believe you," said the girl at last. "Reckon you got a right to go foolin' around if you ain't got no better sense. It's just I don't trust menfolks. I don't trust wimmenfolks neither. I live here with just Seth, an' we ain't fond o' prowlers."
Jim was startled. "You live here alone?"
"I said with Seth," she reminded him, and she patted the barrel of the old gun affectionately. "And I got Black Billy here, an' I'm a right good shot. I got to be. Can't afford to miss."
"Well, you're perfectly safe with me, I assure you," Jim told her, and eyed the dog who had never stopped staring at him with a cold hostility that made the hair stand up on the back of Jim's neck. "I'd say with Seth and Black Billy you were perfectly safe, no matter how many prowlers hung around. As soon as I've had something to eat, I'll relieve you of my presence, though."
The girl nodded slowly, somewhat reluctantly and turned once more to the door into the kitchen. Before she reached the door, she paused to say curtly to the dog, "Seth, watch him!"
The hound eased himself to the floor, flat on his belly, his front paws stretched out, his hind legs gathered under him for extra leverage in case he needed to spring. His eyes clung to Jim's face.
"Long as you jest set there and mind your own business, Mister, you're all right," the girl told Jim. "You make one move to the kitchen, an' Seth'll tear you to pieces."
"I can well believe it," Jim said. He met the dog's look and tried not to shiver. "I have no intention of moving, I assure you."
For close to half an hour, Jim's nostrils were filled with the appetizing odors that wafted in from the kitchen. He trembled with hunger, but he scarcely dared turn his eyes away from the dog's unrelenting stare.
The girl came back at last and began placing food on the round table in the center of the room. When she had adjusted the lighted lamp in the center of the table, she said to Jim, "You can set up, now. Vittles is ready."
Jim rose and so did the dog. The girl spoke to the dog, and Seth eased back into his crouching position, but still watched Jim with an unwinking, inimical regard.
Jim looked hungrily at the food before him--a platter of fried ham, a big bowl of hominy, fried eggs, biscuits and a bowl of jam. A round dish held sweet country butter, and Jim, who was well-accustomed to epicurean feasts, thought he had never seen anything more deliciously appetizing in his life.
Forgetting for the time being the dog's watchful eyes and the girl's suspicion, he ate heartily, and when at last he had topped off the meal with several hot, buttered biscuits and generous helpings of the jam, which he discovered was wild strawberry, he sat back sighing happily and smiled warmly at the girl.
"Thanks for saving my life," he said pleasantly.
"I'd do as much for a starvin' dog," she answered him, and rose to clear the table, refusing any help from him.
"And now I'd better get started," he said and stood up. The dog growled, and he sat hastily down again.
"Where was you aimin' to go?" asked the girl.
"I'm staying at Marshallville."
The girl's eyes showed surprise. "Why, that's clear over on t'other side of the mountain," she protested.
He nodded wryly. "I found that out the hard way, by getting lost," he admitted.
"And you're aimin' to try to get back there tonight?" She marveled at such incredible stupidity. "Why, Mister, that's ten, fifteen miles, and it's darker outside than a black cat standing against a pile o'coal. You'd never make it, not even if you was just aimin' to get to Ghost Creek, an that ain't more'n four, five miles."
Jim waited, and she shrugged at last and said reluctantly, "Well, reckon you'll just have to stay here tonight."
"Maybe you've got a barn or a shed I could sleep in?" he suggested. The cabin was a one-room affair with a little kitchen partitioned off the side. It had only one bed in it.-
"You'd freeze to death in the barn," she said. "I got Bessie bedded down out there, but cows is tougher'n humans. You'll have to sleep up 'loft." She gestured towards the narrow, ladder-like stairs beside the huge old fieldstone fireplace, and at the top, Jim saw the square trap door.
"Sure you don't mind?" he asked.
"Ain't doin' me no good mindin'," she said. "I wouldn't turn a lop-eared houn' dog out a night like this."
"I'm deeply touched." Jim's voice was sarcastic.
The girl eyed him coolly, without answering, and after a moment he said, "My name is Jim McCurdy."
"Howdy," said the girl politely. "Mine's Cindy Grady."
"I'm delighted to meet you."
She made no answer, as she went on with her task of clearing the table, and a little later he heard the clink of the heavy crockery and the thick tumblers as she washed and dried the dishes.
When she came back into the main room, he rose politely, and she looked puzzled, as she motioned the dog to silence and sat down across from him, her hands busy with a small weaving frame.
"It must be very lonely for you up here alone," he said after a moment, his curiosity unable to contain itself any longer. "How did you happen to settle away off up here?"
The firelight was glinting on her thick, lustrous black hair that was wound in a knot at the back of her small head. She was really beautiful he could see now. The perfect oval shape of her face, from which the suntan had not fully faded gave her the look of an Old World Madonna. It was enhanced by the way her hair was parted in the middle and brushed, straight and sleek and shining, into that snug knot. Her eyes were velvety black, and her mouth was beautifully shaped. Its color was a warm, natural pink that had never known the touch of lipstick, nor needed it.
"I was born and raised here," she told him curtly, when he had decided she was not going to speak at all. Her attention appeared to be centered on the weaving. "My great-grand-sir built this here cabin when folks round these parts was sick with the gold fever. He never believed there was 'nough gold here for folks to git so excited about it. He was friendly with the Indians, an' he never got over hatin' what the whites done to 'em soon as they found the gold here.
"The Indians had knowed the gold was here all along. But they was kind of different folk. They figgered there was enough gold for everybody. Reckon they learned, when they was pushed off out west an' had to foot it ever' step, an' most of 'em died on the way, that there ain't never enough of anything good to satisfy some white folks."
"Oh, yes, I remember now." Jim's interest was caught. "They were the Cherokees, and they were supposed to be the most civilized of all the early primitive tribes. One of them wrote an alphabet, and they had a newspaper and sent their girls up to New England to be educated. Then, when gold was discovered here, the whites forced them off the land and to the west. Historians called it 'The Trail of Tears'. "
The girl nodded and threaded a warm bright scarlet through the hand loom, working it deftly and smoothly into the pattern that was growing beneath her flashing fingers.
"Granny used to tell me tales her grandfather had told her," she answered, and it seemed to Jim that some of her hostility had gone. "He come here long about the first of the white people. Him and the Indians was real friendly. They was honest, an' gentle an' kindhearted, an' he sure was mad when they got drove off. He was an old man then, but he sure did raise Cain about it. Didn't do him no good, 'course. By then, they was whites comin' in from all over the country, near 'bout, all of 'em hollering gold, gold, gold, like there wasn't nothing in the world better nor more worth havin'. "
There was such superb contempt in her tone that Jim eyed her curiously.
"Apparently you don't think money is very important."
"Reckon maybe that's 'cause I ain't never had much," she answered, reasonably enough. "Way I look at it, a body can get just about ever thing they really need outen the ground. I don't see no call fer folks to go ravin' wild just to get their paws on a little more money than the next feller's got. Nobody needs no more'n he can eat at one time, er wear at one time. You can't live in but one house at a time, so what's the use o' havin' a whole lot more than that?"
"You're very wise, Cindy," he said quietly.
She looked at him sharply, suspiciously, but there was genuine friendliness and warmth in his voice, and he saw a faint color rise in her cheeks.
"I'm the world's worst fool, an' I done proved that so I ain't got to prove it no- more," she said with a totally unexpected harshness. She was undoubtedly referring to some terrible mistake she had made, and it was clear that the memory pained her.
"You spoke of getting everything a person needs out of the ground," Jim said quickly, hoping to erase that ugly memory. "But that includes gold."
"Gold didn't come outen the ground up here, leastways not when the whites first found it and started shovin' the Indians west," she told him. "They washed it outen the creek beds an' the little mountain streams. Then when that give out, then big-rich folks from way up north, come down and started digging in the ground, an' gettin' out a whole lot o' money.
"My Granny remembered about them days," she mused. "She said the biggest and richest mine of all was on lands that the Cherokees owned. The big-rich took two-three million dollars worth out--an' then the good Lord took a hand and to punish the whites for drivin' the Indians off, he caused a cave-in, an' then the big river run right through what had been the mine.
"The big-rich spent a whole lot o' money tryin' to get the river to go somewheres else, but they couldn't, an' by then they'd found gold in Californy, an' the people that had gold fever so bad they'd forgot man and the good Lord an' ever' decent thing folks could ever know, lit out fer Californy. But it was too late fer the Indians. They'd done been drove off, an' a heap of 'em had died in the marchin', and the starvin' and the heartbreak. My great-grand-mam was a Indian girl, an' my great-grand-sir jest about fit the whole tarnation crowd o' white settlers 'fore they'd let her alone to stay with him. But she just grieved an' grieved, an' finally she sickened and died."
Jim said, startled, "Oh, then you are part Indian."
"An' I'm sure proud of it!" She flung up her head, and her eyes dared him to doubt it.
"I should think you would be, Cindy" he said quietly. "It's an amazing story. Oh, of course, I've heard vaguely about the early settlers here, and the finding of gold and the Indians 'Trail of Tears,' but I hadn't realized it was around here that it happened."
"Andora, down to the settlement, is what's left of a town that was built during the Indian days," Cindy told him. "Used to be, Granny said, a sight o' people livin' down there, fightin', killin', cussin' each other fer gold. Ain't much left of it now. Jest Storekeeper an' his wife an' two-three li'l old cabins they rent out to flatland furriners that come up in the summer and strip off and go pannin' fer gold. It'd make Seth laugh to see how excited some of 'em git, whey they find a li'l ole bitty nugget 'bout the size of a pinhead. 'Course, now and then somebody finds a right smart big piece."
She smiled, and Jim was startled at the change it made in her. She looked younger, and now he was convinced she could not be more than eighteeen or nineteen, though previously he had believed her in her late twenties.
"You know what I think?" Her tone was amused, conspiratorial. "I bet Storekeeper sneaks outen the house o' nights and sticks them nuggets where folks'll find 'em come daylight. They get all excited-like and spread the word around-their friends and folks keep a-comin' to Ghost Creek, and Storekeeper makes him a pile o' money rentin' 'em shacks to live in, whilst they're washin' for more o' them nuggets."
Jim's eyes twinkled. "That's what they call salting a mine out West," he agreed. "Does this storekeeper make enough off of his summer visitors to justify sprinkling nuggets around?"
"Oh, sure. Nobody never finds more'n one or two durin' a whole summer. Lots o' folks think Storekeeper's got him a mess o' them nuggets squirrelled away, like maybe he stole 'em from the Indians. Folks think the Indians buried a lot o' gold 'fore they was shoved off to the West, thinkin', maybe, the pore fools, somebody might let 'em come back some day and dig 'em up."