DAN GOOCH MAKES A DISCOVERY
“Do you reckon it’ll seem the same?” Talitha, quite breathless with the long climb, stood looking down at her brother, who was following more slowly up the scraggy slope of Red Mountain.
“Why not?” he answered. “But say, are you going to keep up this gait for long? If you do you’ll be plumb tuckered before we get home.”
The girl laughed, and then sighed. “I’m so anxious to get there, Mart; seems like I can’t wait. To think we’ve been away ’most a year! Do you s’pose Rufe and little Dock’ll know us?”
“Like as not they won’t. I’m sort o’ in hopes they’ll think we’ve changed some,” returned Martin. He dropped upon a convenient ledge and pulled his sister down beside him.
“I’m afraid they won’t see much difference in me, but you’ve changed a whole lot,” Talitha declared proudly with a sidewise glance of the brown eyes. “Mother’ll notice it the first thing.”
“I guess you haven’t looked in the glass
lately,” scoffed Martin, reddening at the implied praise. “You aren’t the same girl who left for school last fall with a pigtail hanging down her back and her dress ’most to her knees.”
“I s’pose I looked just as Lalla Ponder did when she started in this spring, and she’s changed a sight.” Talitha put up her hands to smooth the soft roll of wavy hair which had taken the place of the tight, girlish braid. A year had never made so much difference before.
“I’m going back in the fall,” suddenly announced Martin. “Aren’t you, Tally?”
“So far as I know, I am, but it all depends on mammy. It’ll be harder for me to leave than you, I reckon.” Talitha rose to her feet and adjusted her bundle knapsack-fashion across her shoulders. “We’ll make it before dark, I should say,” thinking of the rough mountain way yet to be traversed. They had left the train early that morning, and walked steadily since sunrise. Now it lacked a half-hour of noon.
Another steady climb and a descent, and the two found themselves on familiar ground. At their feet Goose Creek crept sluggishly. A footpath followed on the low, sloping bank like a persistent shadow until both were lost to sight in the curves of the foothills. Here in the cool shade of a tangled growth, close to the stream, brother and sister paused to eat
their lunch, which Martin produced from his bundle. They would be at home in time for supper.
“I wonder if Si Quinn is going to teach the Goose Creek school this term?” Martin helped himself to a sandwich.
“I reckon so, but I wish he could go to Bentville long enough to get it out of his head that the earth is square. To think of his teaching us such foolishness!”
Martin shook his head. “It wouldn’t be of any use; he’s the greatest person to argufy. He’s got it all figured out that if the earth is round we’d all be rolled off into nothing. It would be ‘onpossible’ to stay on it.”
Talitha dipped her hands in the creek and wiped them on her handkerchief. “I wish—” she began, then stopped suddenly. Martin looked up and his eyes followed hers.
Around the farther curve of the creek path appeared a horse’s head; then the animal and its rider came slowly into view. “It’s somebody from Stone Jug, I reckon,” said Martin, “only it rides like Dan Gooch.”
“It is Dan Gooch,” decided Talitha under her breath. “Wait and see if he knows us, Mart.”
The old sorrel plodded dejectedly along the path. The man on his back was as loose-jointed and angular as his steed. An ancient broad-brimmed hat slouched over his face to keep out the bright sunlight. If the two seated at the creek’s edge imagined he was about
to pass them unnoticed, they were immediately undeceived, for the man raised his head and eyed them as though he had come for that express purpose.
“Howdy!” said Martin with the tone of one stranger saluting another.
“Howdy!” responded the man, still staring. His horse had already stopped and was nosing the herbage. “Hit ain’t Mart Coyle and Tally?” exclaimed Dan Gooch after a speculative silence.
“It is.” Talitha sprang up with a laugh. “But you didn’t know us right off, though.”
“I ’lowed ’twas you and agin I ’lowed ’twas furriners. I never seen young-uns change so in sech a few months. You’d better let me go ahead and tell your mammy thar’s comp’ny comin’ fer supper.” The man slipped from his horse with a chuckle. “If you’ve walked from the Gap, hit’s been a purty stiff climb. Crawl up on the beastie, Tally, I’ll keep Mart comp’ny.”
After much demurring the girl mounted the sorrel and soon both were lost to sight around the bend.
The sun, a huge, fiery ball, was poised on the bare summit of a peak in the west, when Talitha reached the edge of a cove on the mountain-side. Curling indolently upward, the smoke from a cabin chimney was lost among the trees crowding the slope beyond. In spite of her haste, she halted the not unwilling
sorrel and sat for a few moments gazing at the place she called home. The picture in her memory supplied all invisible details.
The cabin was small, one-roomed, with a loft above, the rough, unbarked logs brown as a beech nut. The mud and stick chimney at one end looked ready to collapse at the first brisk wind. There was no glass in the two shuttered openings which served as windows. The interior of the cabin was scarcely more attractive. Wide cracks showed in the puncheon floor, the walls were smoke-stained. In a corner near the fireplace,—there was no stove,—were several rude shelves filled with coarse, nicked dishes. The loom, warping bars, spinning wheel, a deal table, with three or four chairs and a couple of benches, nearly filled the room. A row of last year’s pepper pods and a bunch of herbs still hung from the dingy ceiling.
Outside, two children romped among the geese and chickens. Presently a woman, spare and stooping, appeared, and toiled springward for a bucket of water. Tears filled Talitha’s eyes as she went on. Her mother was not old, yet she was as careworn and bent as women twice her age in the village. To the girl, Bentville stood for the world which lay beyond her mountains, and the longing to transform her home life into something like the comfort and harmony of those she had just left was almost overwhelming.
Talitha rode up to the door amid the joyful shrieks of the children and the squawks of the fowls as they flew precipitately in every direction. Dismounting, she released herself as soon as possible from small embracing arms and hurried to her mother who had set down the bucket and was eyeing her daughter perplexedly.
“Hit ’pears ter me you’ve growed a heap sence you war gone,” was all the comment Mrs. Coyle made upon Talitha’s changed appearance. “Whar’s Mart?” with sudden misgiving as the girl picked up the bucket of water and stepped briskly along at her side.
“He’s coming. Dan Gooch gave me a lift on his sorrel and he footed it with Mart.”
Talitha went on into the cabin, but her mother lingered outside. She had caught sight of a young, stalwart figure beside their neighbour. She smoothed her old homespun gown with worn, calloused hands, and wished she had the “tuckin’ comb” Talitha had sent her for Christmas in her hair.
“Hello, mammy!” Martin put his arms around his mother and kissed her awkwardly.
After Dan Gooch had accepted the hospitable invitation to stay for supper, the three repaired indoors. Talitha had rallied the younger members of the family to her assistance, and was already dishing up the evening meal. A fresh cloth had been laid, and a handful of mountain laurel, in a tin can on the
window-sill, transferred to the centre of the table. At this juncture Sam Coyle appeared from the “fodder patch.” After a hasty greeting he retreated to the basin of water outside with a bewildered, company feeling he had not experienced since a college settlement worker had visited them the year before.
At the table he listened with silent pride to the answers which Dan Gooch’s volley of questions elicited. He learned that a mountain farm could bring its owner a good living if rightly cultivated, that Talitha had made with her own hands the dress and apron of “store goods” she was wearing. Perhaps his wife had been in the right after all when she insisted on the two older children going to school, although it was against his judgment.
“And you-uns hev been a-larnin’ carpenterin’?” continued their neighbour, addressing Martin.
“Yes, I’ve been working at it all the year, out of school hours,” was the reply.
“Then thar’s a job waitin’ fer you at Squar’ Dodd’s. His house ain’t big ’nough ter suit him, and he’s bound ter hev a po’ch and a lean-to on thet place of his’n.”
“Thank you ever so much. I’ll see Mr. Dodd about it to-night.” Martin’s eyes kindled at the thought of putting his knowledge to such immediate use.
“I reckon thet school’d be a fine place fer my Abner and Gincy,” mused Dan.
“Oh, it would,” urged Talitha delightedly. “And Gincy could room with me if I go back next year,” with an appealing glance at her father.
Sam Coyle frowned. “I reckon a year’s schoolin’s ’nough fer any gal. Hit’s a sight more’n I ever had,” he said surlily.
His neighbour gave a derisive laugh. “Can’t neither of us read or write no more’n if we war blind as bats. I hain’t any mind ter stand in the way of my chil’ren gettin’ larnin’, ’specially if hit ain’t costin’ me nothin’.”
The thrust went home, as the speaker intended, for it was well known that Martin and Talitha had paid for their year at school by their own exertions. Also that Sam Coyle had taken little of the added burdens—during their absence—upon his own shoulders.
“Gincy would like it ever so much,” pursued Talitha, anxious to preserve peace. “She’d especially like the singing.”
“She would, I reckon,” agreed her father proudly. “Gincy has a purty ear for a tune, and I’m aimin’ ter give her a chanct if I didn’t hev one myself,” he said, rising to take his departure.
Martin watched him disappear down the slope in silent astonishment. He had supposed Dan Gooch would be the last one to see the “needcessity of larnin’,” and here he was the champion of their cause against their own father.
Talitha was briskly clearing away the supper dishes when a couple mounted on one horse rode up to the door. “Howdy!” greeted Sam Coyle, lounging forward with a show of cordiality.
“Shad ’lowed he seen a gal and boy tromp-in’ ’cross the mounting this mornin’, and I sez hit wan’t nobody but Mart and Tally,” said the old woman, slipping cautiously to the ground.
“You war a true prophet fer once, Ann, but I’d be bound nobody’d known ’em anywhere else,” declared her brother.
“Plumb spiled, most likely,” grumbled Ann. From the depths of her black, slatted sunbonnet the gimlet eyes keenly scrutinized her nephew and niece. “Well, you air growed up fer sure, and I reckon you know more’n the old schoolmaster hisself. Thar ain’t nothin’ like the insurance o’ young-uns thet’s got a leetle larnin’,” pursued the old woman with acerbity. “Now what I want ter know is, what kin you do thet the gals and boys what never seen Bentville, can’t?” Ann Bills had seated herself before the fireplace, removed her sunbonnet, and was lighting the pipe she had taken from her pocket.
“Lawsy,’ Ann,” protested Mrs. Coyle indignantly, “their pappy and me air terrible pleased with what they’ve larned, and I don’t see no call fer you ter be so powerful ornery. If all your six boys hed been gals I’ll be
bound thar couldn’t one of ’em make a gown like thet Tally’s wearin’, and she tuk every stitch herself. As fer Mart, you’ll know what he kin do ’fore long, I reckon.”
Mrs. Coyle and her sister-in-law did not agree on the subject of education. The latter’s family of boys had grown to man’s estate and married without having mastered the second reader. For once Sam Coyle did not come to his sister’s aid. Although he had no intention of allowing his children to return to school, he was swelling with pride at their changed appearance and his tongue was ready to wage a sharp battle in the cause of “larnin’.”
Failing to secure an ally, the old dame prudently changed her tactics. “Hit air purty fair work,” she admitted in a conciliatory tone, scrutinizing the hem of Talitha’s gown. “But I don’t set much store by thet kind o’ goods; hit can’t hold a candle ter homespun when hit comes ter wear. If I war you, I’d put Tally ter the loom; she air old ’nough ter be larnin’ somethin’ of more ’count.”
Talitha turned back to her dishes with a sigh. Martin had escaped Uncle Shad’s equally acrimonious tongue and gone to interview Squire Dodd. He did not return until the old couple had taken their departure.
Gincy Gooch came over the very next afternoon. The dinner work was out of the way and Mrs. Coyle was spinning while Talitha
sat on the doorstep at work on the “store goods” Martin had brought his mother for a new gown. Gincy watched the deft fingers wistfully.
“Pappy says you-uns hev larned a heap of things,” she remarked. “And you’ve changed a sight; ’most ’pears ter me you ain’t Tally Coyle any more.”
Talitha laughed. “Well, I am, and when you’ve been to Bentville a while you’ll change, too.”
“Kin you reely read books right off ’thout spellin’ out the big words?”
“Yes,” Talitha nodded, remembering her shortcomings of only a year ago. If she never went back to school how many things she had to be thankful for. “You’d like the singing, Gincy,” she said abruptly, “it’s so different from any music you ever heard.”
“Well, I’ll show you. Just begin some song and don’t get off the tune no matter what I sing.”
“I ain’t never got off the tune yit,” reproved Gincy. She began in a clear, sweet voice “The Turkish Lady,” an old English ballad (one of many preserved for generations among the mountaineers). It ran thus:
“Lord Bateman was in England born,
He thought himself of a high degree;
He could not rest or be contented
Until he had voyaged across the sea.”
Talitha joined Gincy in a mellow alto, and together the two sang verse after verse. The spinning wheel ceased to turn while the spinner listened to this new blending of voices, for the mountain people only sang the air. At the edge of the slope Sam Coyle heard it in amazement. The old ballad was familiar enough, but it had never sounded so beautiful.
Gincy showed no surprise at the innovation. Her hands clasped in her lap she looked with large, dreamy eyes off to the green-topped hills lying peacefully against the shining sky. The echoes crept out of the silences and chanted the words softly over and over again.
When the song was finished, Gincy hardly paused to take breath before she swung into another familiar melody and Talitha followed, her work forgotten. They had hardly reached the third line when a bass voice joined them, and Martin dropped down on the doorstep beside the two girls.
Below, on the creek path, a sorrel horse and its rider had halted. “Thet air Gincy’s voice fer sartin. I reckon the Coyles air a-singin’, too, but hit sounds diff’runt’n I ever hearn ’em afore; somethin’ like them a-choirin’ up yander, I reckon,” glancing upward. With a regretful sigh he heard the last echo die away.
“Gincy’s goin’ ter hev a chanct ter git larnin’, thet’s all,” declared Dan Gooch as he jogged slowly homeward.