“You mean to say he takes those big, jug-like things down there empty and brings them up full?” Johnny Thompson, the boy from Illinois who had travelled far and seen many strange things, stared at Ballard Ball, the red-headed boy of the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, with surprise. If the truth were told, he found himself doubting the other boy’s story.
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A classic action and adventure western written for young readers, but thoroughly enjoyable by all.
Here he was standing in the grinding room of an old fashioned mill watching massive stone wheels grind the corn he had carted from his cousin’s store and at the same time discovering what promised to be a first class mystery right down here in the slow old Cumberland mountains where, he had supposed, nothing unusual ever happened.
“But what’s down there?” He was looking at the floor of the mill. At the same time he was hearing a curious sound, a sucking and hissing that might, he thought, have been the working of a small steam engine. But of course there was no steam engine, for there was no smoke stack and no smoke.
“Nothing down there but water. Some machines he brought months ago. They’re down there. The water wheel runs them,” the other boy drawled. “Of course he wouldn’t bring water up in the jugs and cart them away. Why should he? There’s water everywhere. This river runs for miles. Besides,” his voice dropped, “that stuff he brings up is queer. It’s cold and it smokes. Yes sir, a sort of white smoke comes off it all the time.”
“White smoke,” Johnny said slowly. “And it’s cold. That’s odd!”
“You’d have thought it was odd!” Ballard gave vent to a low chuckle. “I stood with my leg against one of those jugs—if that’s what they are—once and all of a sudden my leg tingled and went sort of dead. I jumped away quick, but not quick enough. Three or four days after that, the skin all peeled off the side of my leg.”
“Cooked your leg!” Johnny exclaimed.
“It must have!” Ballard amended.
“How—how long’s he been doing it?” Johnny asked.
“Almost a year!”
“A year!” Johnny whistled. “And you never asked him what it was he was bringing up nor how he got it?”
“No-o.” The other boy smiled a queer smile. “He pays me for my work here, keeping the grinding mill going, pays me well and besides—” He hesitated. “Well, you know, we mountain folks don’t like for other people to ask us too many questions so, naturally, we don’t ask too many ourselves.
“Not,” he added hastily, “that there are not people round about here who are burning up to know all about it. There are. But up to now nary a one of ’em’s learned anything worth telling.”
“You’re a good watchman,” Johnny laughed.
“I sleep here at the mill,” the mountain boy said simply. “And the lower part of the mill, down where he makes that—that stuff, whatever it is, is boarded up pretty tight, all two inch planks, spiked good and plenty. You see—” Ballard broke off. “Wait a little. There’s Aunt Sally Ann Setser out there. She’s got rheumatism, sort of stiff in her joints. I’ll take down her bag of corn to her.”
Left to himself, Johnny allowed his eyes to roam about the place. This was no ordinary grinding mill. It was much larger. Before the stranger came with his unusual hissing machinery or pumps, and his more unusual something that was produced apparently from water, or air, or just nothing at all, it had been used in other ways. He remembered hearing Cousin Bill say it had been a sawmill, that logs had been floated down to it in the spring when the water was high. But now there were no more logs and no sawmill.
Johnny’s eyes strayed through the open door and up to the crest of the rocky ridge known as Stone Mountain. “Worth exploring,” he told himself. “Caves up there I’ve heard,—and bears. Sometimes the natives hunt them. Boy! Fellow’d have to watch out!” Johnny heaved a sigh of contentment. He loved these slow-going mountain people, loved the mountains as well. In the spring when all the little streams, and the big ones too, went rushing and roaring by, when the birds sang to the tune of those rushing waters and white dogwood blossoms lay like snow banks against the hills, that was wonderful!
In the autumn when leaves turned to red and gold, when chestnut burs were opening and the coon hunter’s dogs bayed from the hills, that was grand too.
Yes, Johnny liked it all. But this mystery of the old mill promised to make his stay doubly interesting. “Just think of an old man coming down into these hills and setting up a mill for creating something of real value out of water and air,” he murmured. “Gold from the sky, almost. But I’m going to find out about it.”
Once again his thoughts swung back to mountain scenes. His cousin Bill, who was a young man with a family, had moved down here and set up a small store. Bill was doing very well. Johnny was always welcome. He clerked in the store, made trips like this to the mill and helped in every way he could.
“Somebody told me there was a cave up there along the ridge,” he said to Ballard, as the boy came shuffling back into the mill room.
“Yep. There is. Regular good one!” he answered. “Lot of these white icicles in it. Look like icicles but not really icicles you know.”
“Stalactites and stalagmites,” Johnny suggested.
“That what you call ’em?” Ballard stared. “Looks like there might be an easier name to say. But they’re there anyway. Want to go up there? Don’t have to go back right away do you? I’ll be through in less than an hour. Then we’ll go up.”
“We—ll,” Johnny reflected for a moment. “Just so I get back by early candle light. I guess it will be all right.” Just at that moment had there been any mountain imps about, and if there were such creatures as imps, we might imagine one whispering to Johnny: “As if you’d ever get back by early candle light!” But there are no imps, so there was no whisper.
As Johnny stood there a feeling of uneasiness, not to say of guilt, crept over him. At first he was at a loss to know what it was all about. Then, like a sudden bang from a squirrel hunter’s gun, it came to him.
“Ran away!” he exclaimed in an undertone. “Ran away. That’s what I did.”
Yes, that was just what he had done. The call of the Cumberlands had been too much for him. The whisper of breezes among the hilltops, the chatter of squirrels in the chestnut trees, the gleam of water in deep pools where sly old black bass lurk, had been too strong for him. He had run away.
Run away from what? The strangest thing! Not from his home. Johnny had no home except the home of his grandfather at old Hillcrest. There he was free to come and go as he chose. He had not run away from his job either, at present he had no job. He had run away from a promise.
In Hillcrest, the little home city of his grandfather, there was a college, not a large college, but a very fine one. The students were a sturdy hard-working lot, the professors wise and friendly.
No, Johnny had not promised to attend college. “College is fine for some people,” Johnny had said. “Fine for a lot of fellows, but not for me. Imagine me sitting still for a whole hour listening to a lecture on Plato or the fifth nerve of a frog. Some people are born for action. That’s me. I can’t sit still.”
Action. Yes, that was the word, and it was action Johnny had promised. He had told Coach Dizney that he would get out and scout around among the nearby small cities for good football material. The coach had a good team—almost. He was short two or three good players. More than all else he needed a left half-back. Johnny had promised to find him that particular player.
“And I failed!” Johnny groaned.
So he had. Johnny did not play football. He was handicapped by a bad knee that doubled up under him as soon as he ran fifty yards. But Johnny knew a good player when he saw one. Johnny was a lightweight boxer of no mean reputation. He could put a man through a series of action that told him very quickly what he would be worth behind the line of scrimmage. Even Coach Dizney admitted that it was uncanny the way Johnny picked them. He had sent Johnny out to scout, then had hurried away for a vacation in the north woods. Johnny had scouted faithfully for two weeks with no results worthy of mention. Then the call of the mountains had got him.
“I failed him,” he groaned. “Failed the good old coach.”
He was full of self reproach but the lure of the hills held him. Oh well, there were still two full weeks before college opened. He’d have a breathing spell here in the Cumberlands. Then he’d go back and pick ’em. Oh! Wouldn’t he though?
A half hour later all guilty thoughts were banished by Ballard’s cheerful drawl: “All right now, we can go. Buck Howard’s here. He’ll tend the mill. Your corn will all be ground by the time we get back.” These mountain mills, like the mills of the gods, grind slow but they grind exceeding fine. Cousin Bill made a nice profit by trading “brought on” groceries, sugar, baking-powder, and spices for corn. He had the corn ground at this mill then shipped it out to special customers who liked this fine ground corn meal.
“Here’s little Bex Brice,” Ballard said. “He wants to go along. Real name’s Bexter, but we call him Bex. Old as I am, Bex is, but you forgot to grow, didn’t you Bex?”
The short, sturdy-looking, freckled faced boy grinned and said, “I reckon.” Then they were away.
“I suppose you know every rock up here,” said Johnny, as they went scrambling up and up, over an all but perpendicular trail.
“Mebby I do,” Ballard admitted. “But Bex knows ’em better. He’s a regular mountain goat, Bex is.”
“Saw a bear up here day before yesterday,” Bex put in eagerly. “Regular big one. Scared me half to death.”
“Sure nuf?” Ballard paused to stare. “Must have come over the mountains.”
Without quite forgetting the bear, they struggled on up the rocky slope. Johnny was thinking, “Suppose we get back into the cave and the bear comes after us?” He did not quite know the answer to this. To ask, however, might be showing what these folks called “the white feather,” so he did not ask.
Instead he began wondering again what that old man could produce down there beneath the mill, out of water and air. “He takes nothing down but brings something up.” Here indeed was a puzzler. “If he took some of the corn down there you might think he was making moonshine whisky,” he told himself. “And—and perhaps he does when Ballard is asleep. And yet—”
Someone had told him that this old man, Malcomb MacQueen, had a noble character, that he had helped bring well educated teachers down to the school at the fork of the river. “Wouldn’t do that and then go peddling poisonous moonshine,” Johnny thought. There had been men who did good deeds to cover up the evil that was hidden in their hearts. But somehow, he had a feeling that moonshine was not the answer. “What can it be?” he asked himself. Johnny’s reflections were broken in upon by a word from Ballard.
“Listen,” he whispered, as seizing Johnny’s arm he brought him to a sudden halt.
To Johnny’s keen ears came a faint, high keyed sound.
“It’s a pig, a young pig! He’s squealing. Something’s got him!” It was Bex who whispered this excitedly.
For one full minute the three boys stood there, breathing softly, silently listening. Then Ballard murmured low, “He’s coming this way. We—we’d better hide.” His eyes, searching the ridge above, spied a cluster of beech trees clinging to the rocks. “Up! Up there.”
Next instant, without a sound they were scrambling from rock to rock on their way up. Just as they reached the cluster of trees, Ballard’s foot loosened a rock that went bumping and bounding downward to make at last one wide leap and land in a narrow meadow far below.
“Oh!” On Ballard’s face was a look of consternation.
Johnny’s lips formed one word: “Why?”
“There’s been hog stealin’,” Ballard whispered. “Uncle Mose Short has lost three. Lige Field lost two. If we catch the thief it will just naturally be something.”
For some little time after that there was silence. From time to time, ever a little louder, there came the frantic appeal of the pig.
Then, quite suddenly, a fresh sound burst upon their ears. A blue and white airplane came swooping across the ridge.
“Going to Frankfort,” Johnny suggested, “or Louisville.” To him the soaring plane was not a novel sight. To the mountain boys, it was an object of wonder. Even Johnny was surprised and a little startled when the plane, instead of streaking across the sky, circled twice then, like some lone, wild duck, came to rest on the narrow meadow far below.
“Motor trouble forced him to land, perhaps,” Johnny whispered.
“Reckon we can’t hardly be sure of that,” was Ballard’s surprising reply. “Judge Middleton rented that meadow to a stranger. When he asked him what he meant to do with it he said he wasn’t prepared to say. Mebby he’s just got it for his airplane.”
“Boy! Oh, boy!” Bex whispered excitedly. “I sure do hope so! I’ve always wanted to see one of them things right close up. I—”
“Sh!” Ballard put a hand over the small boy’s mouth. There was scarcely need for this. At that moment from very close at hand, there came the heart-rending cry of a baby pig in mortal terror. And, before one of the boys could move or breathe, along the trail, below them and all too close, there came the hugest bear they had ever seen. And closely gripped between his gleaming teeth was the hopeless porker.
“There—there’s your hog thief,” Johnny whispered low, as the bear vanished round a boulder. “What you going to do about it?”
“N—not a thing,” Ballard stammered. Whereupon the three boys, seized with a nervous desire to laugh, all but burst their sides holding in.
In the midst of this, Ballard sobered with a suddenness that was startling. With a shaky finger he pointed as he hissed: “Look! Just look down there!”
The other boys looked, then stared. Almost directly beneath them was a narrow, swinging bridge across a rocky chasm. It was a foot bridge made of boards and light cables. Ballard had crossed this bridge hundreds of times, but always on foot. Never had he seen horse or mule attempt to cross it. But at this moment, as they stared, expecting instant catastrophe, they saw, standing at the very center of the old and fragile bridge, a huge, black mule.
“It’s Sambo,” Ballard said hoarsely. “Uncle Mose Short’s Sambo! Poor old Uncle Mose! His mule will never make it. The cables are sure to break. The mule will be killed. It’s the only mule Mose ever had, or ever will have. Wonder what made him try to cross?”
“Got untied somehow,” Bex suggested. “Went out hunting for Mose. We got to do something. We really must.”
Just at that moment, the small pig gave an unearthly squeal.
“The bear!” Ballard whispered in an awed tone. “He’s up there ahead of us on the trail somewhere. There’s no way to get down to the bridge but to go right up ahead there where the bear went.”
Johnny rose. He wanted to go but something seemed to hold him back. He knew Uncle Mose, the oldest mountaineer of that region, knew and loved him. Uncle Mose was a famous cook. He could make the most marvelous stewed chickens and dumplings. Uncle Mose’s mule should be saved somehow. But how?
Just then Ballard spoke. “Look! There’s someone coming from the other way! Why! It’s Mr. MacQueen! The man that owns our mill!”
Johnny stared. So that was the man! The man who went down into that mysterious lower portion of the ancient mill. “He takes down empty jugs and brings them back up full,” he whispered to himself.
“Malcomb MacQueen, that’s his name,” Ballard said as if he had read Johnny’s thoughts.
This small, gray haired man with a quick nervous stride had appeared around a bend. At sight of the mule on the bridge, he stopped and stared. He stood there for ten seconds only. Then he sprang forward.
“Look!” Ballard was on his feet, ready to slide down the slope to the trail and to follow that trail, to face the bear and fight him if he must. “Look! Mr. MacQueen is going on the bridge! And he must not! Must not! The cables won’t hold another pound. One side is half rusted away. Come on! Come on! Come quick!” Slipping and sliding, he led the way down the steep slope to the trail below.
Johnny’s mind was in a whirl. “The bear, the bridge, the mule, Malcomb MacQueen,” he thought over and over. For all that, he followed Ballard as closely as he dared.
Strangely enough, at that moment, like a sudden burst of light, his duty to Hillcrest College and the coach stood out before him. If he went down there when would he come back? Somehow he felt himself being drawn from the path of duty. And yet, when approaching tragedy calls, one must obey that call.