The right of way from North Wilkesboro’
to Greensboro’ runs through a region where every
vista delights the eye with wild and romantic scenes.
The rails follow the course of the upper reaches of
the Yadkin River, with swift succession of vicious
curves and heavy grades. The twistings of the
road-bed, so advantageous for presenting the varied
loveliness of the wilds, were by way of being a real
torture to the young adventurer, who sat in seeming
stolidity near the rear door of the smoking-car, with
the black bag between his feet. Even experienced
travelers found the lunges of the train trying to their
nerves as it shot at speed around “hairpin”
bends, or hurled itself to the fall of a steeper descent.
To Zeke, who for the first time knew the roar and
jolt of such travel, this trip was a fearsome thing.
To sit movelessly there, while the car reeled recklessly
on the edge of abysses, was a supreme trial of self-control.
The racking peril fairly sickened him. A mad
impulse of flight surged in him. Yet, not for
worlds would he have let anyone guess his miserable
Nevertheless, one there was who apprehended
in some measure the ordeal through which the mountaineer
was passing happily, a kindly observer.
An elderly man, across the aisle from Zeke, regarded
his fellow passenger with particular intentness.
It seemed to him that, in some vague way, the clean-cut
face was familiar. His curiosity thus aroused,
he perceived the tenseness of expression and attitude,
and shrewdly suspected the truth. It was with
benevolent intent, rather than for the gratification
of inquisitiveness, that he finally got up and seated
himself in the vacant place alongside the younger man.
Zeke’s perturbation caused him
to start nervously at this advent of a stranger, but
a single glance into the wrinkled, yet hale, face of
the man reassured him. The visitor’s amiable
character showed plainly in his dim blue eyes, which
twinkled merrily. Moreover, there was a sure
witness of worth in the empty sleeve, pinned to his
left breast, on which showed the cross of honor.
The humor lurking in the eyes was grotesquely manifested
in his first address:
“This-hyar railroad hain’t
no fitten one fer beginners,” he announced,
with a chuckle. “Hit’s plumb likely
to make a squirrel into a nut.”
Zeke smiled, somewhat ruefully.
He understood the play on words since “boomer,”
the mountaineers’ own name for the red squirrel,
is often applied to themselves. But the distraction
afforded by the garrulous veteran was a relief.
A new spur was given to their mutual interest when,
after telling his name, it was discovered that his
father had been a company-mate with Seth Jones, the
veteran, in the Twelfth North Carolina Volunteers.
The old man’s curiosity was highly gratified
by this explanation of the inherited likeness that
had puzzled him, and he waxed reminiscent and confidential.
The diversion was welcome to his listener, where doubtless
many another might have found the narrative of by-gone
campaigns tedious in this prolix retelling. Ultimately,
indeed, the youth’s sympathies were aroused by
Jones’ tale of misfortune in love, wherein his
failure to write the girl he left behind him had caused
her first to mourn him as dead, and eventually to
marry her second choice.
“But I’ve jest got scrumptious
news,” he exclaimed, his rheumy eyes suddenly
clear and sparkling. “Seems as how Fanny’s
a widder. So, I’m a-goin’ to try
my luck, an’ no shelly-shallyin’, now I’ve
got her located arter a mighty lot o’ huntin’.
Yes, sir, sonny,” he concluded, with a guffaw,
“old as I be, I’m a-goin’ a-courtin’.
If I ever see ye ag’in, I’ll tell ye how
it comes out. I s’pose I seem plumb old
fer sech foolishness to a boy like you be, but
some hearts keep young till they stop. I’m
pretty spry fer my age, too, if I do say so as
Zeke was not so surprised by the old
man’s hopes as he might have been, were it not
for the example of Plutina’s grandfather, who,
somewhat beyond four-score, was still scandalously
lively, to the delectation of local gossip. But,
though after the departure of Jones at a junction,
Zeke reflected half-amusedly on the rather sere romances
of these two ancient Romeos, he was far from surmising
that, at the last, their amorous paths would cross.
There was still further harrowing
experience for Zeke after reaching the Southern Railway’s
terminal on the pier at Pinner’s Point, in Virginia,
for here he was hurried aboard the ferry-boat, and
was immediately appalled by the warning blast of the
whistle. Few bear that strident din undismayed.
This adventurer had never heard the like only
the lesser warning of locomotives and the siren of
a tannery across twenty miles of distance. Now,
the infernal belching clamor broke in his very ears,
stunning him. He quivered under the impact, stricken
to the soul for seconds of shock. But the few
careless eyes that chanced to scan the mountaineer
noted no faltering in face or form. He stood
to all appearance serenely, easily poised, his attitude
replete with the grace of physical power, his mouth
firmly closed, his widely-set eyes unwavering.
Even the cudgel, and the black bag still dangling
from it, could not offset a certain aloof dignity
that masked distress by stern effort of will.
Nothing further occurred for a little
to afflict the traveler’s unaccustomed nerves,
and he soon found himself pleasurably absorbed in
contemplation of the novel surroundings. The boat
was nearing the Norfolk landing when his eyes fell
on a dog, held in leash by a young woman. Both
the beast and its mistress commanded his instant attention,
in which wonder was the chief emotion. The dog
itself was a Boston bull-terrier, which was a canine
species wholly strange to the mountaineer’s
experience, limited as it had been to hounds and mongrels
of unanalyzable genealogy. The brute’s face
had an uncanny likeness to a snub-nosed, heavy-jowled
“boomer” whom Zeke detested, and he eyed
the creature askance by reason of the resemblance.
“Hit’s plumb man-faced,”
was his verdict. “I shore prefer ’em
jest plain dawg.” His eyes went then from
the leash to the girl holding it, and he hardly restrained
a gasp, in which admiration was mingled with amazement.
The ordinary observer would have seen only a pretty
girl, of the fluffy blond type, smartly tailored in
blue serge, with the skirt decorously slit. But
Zeke saw a vision from another world than that of
the slatternly mountain women, whose toil left them
neither opportunity nor ambition for nicety in dress,
which, indeed, was finally prohibited by ignorance
as well as poverty. This girl stood out in startling
relief, marvelous revelation from the new world he
was entering. Slowly, with concentration, the
young man scrutinized the vision, noting every detail,
from the natty turban with its swaying feather wand
to the daintily pointed ties, above which were to
be glimpsed trim silk-clad ankles. Yet, the novel
charm of her failed utterly to disturb the loyalty
of his heart. His hungry soul found exquisite
satisfaction in the spectacle of feminine refinement
thus presented for the first time, but his devotion
to the roughly garbed mountain girl was in no wise
imperiled. On the contrary, his imagination busied
itself with an effort to picture Plutina thus splendidly
“I ’low she’s plumb
handsome,” he meditated. “But, shucks!
Tiny beats her holler. In them duds, she’d
have her skun a mile.... But thet-thar man-faced
dawg! I’d shore hate like pizen to be found
daid along with thet ornery pup.”
As he mused, no hint came out of the
future as to the time when, in very truth, he would
be close to death, and that same dog an actor in the
drama, one to be deeply esteemed, not contemned.
But that time was not yet. In fact, the immediate
future was not destined to remove his prejudice against
the bull-terrier. On the contrary!
The fixity of Zeke’s staring
penetrated the girl’s consciousness. She
turned abruptly, and her blue eyes met his in a cool
glance that seemed to pass through him and on, as
if he were something quite invisible, altogether beneath
notice. Zeke felt the rebuke keenly, though innocent
of intentional offense. The instincts of gentlemanly
blood from which he was somewhere distantly descended
made him realize his fault in manners, though he had
had no guidance from experience. The ready blush
burned hot on brow and cheeks; he dropped his gaze
confusedly to the dog.
Even the beast, he perceived, reprobated
his conduct. It was staring up at him fiercely
from red eyes, and the hackles stood erect, though
it did not growl. Evidently, it resented undue
attention to its mistress.
There was a movement forward of the
passengers, as the ferry-boat drew into its slip.
Zeke advanced with the others, following close behind
the girl and the dog, which strained at the leash in
order still to stare menacingly at the young man.
Then, without warning, the action became swift and
violent. The ferry-boat crashed against the yielding
walls of the slip. Zeke, unprepared for the shock,
was thrown from his balance. One of the heavy
new shoes smashed down on a paw. The dog sprang
and snapped. The jaws missed, because the girl
tugged at the leash in the same second. Zeke
instinctively kicked at the brute in self-defense.
His foot took the animal fairly in the jaw, and lifted
it from the floor, just as the girl turned. She
cried out in shrill anger at this rough stranger’s
wanton attack on her pet, for so she interpreted the
event. She maintained her hold on the leash bravely,
lest worse follow. But her strength was insufficient
to restrain the creature of fighting breed. It
lunged forward with such suddenness that both its
mistress and its enemy were taken unawares. The
girl was dragged in tow. Zeke would have leaped
aside, but he was too late to escape the encounter,
though he mitigated it. The iron jaws clanged
shut, but in the slack of the victim’s sturdy
jeans, instead of in the flesh. The massive mouth
was locked vise-like. Because of the cloth’s
sturdiness, the dog swung clear of the floor.
The girl still strove frantically, though vainly,
at the leash, shrieking commands which were unheeded.
Zeke, confused, chagrined, ashamed, wrathful, shook
himself violently to be free, without avail. The
other passengers scurried forth, with a panic cry
of “Mad dog!”
Zeke’s wrath mounted. He
had had little training in self-restraint, and his
passions were of the primitive sort. Now, abruptly,
the lesser emotions were overwhelmed by the might
of his rage. He was conscious only of the humiliating
fact that this hideous man-faced dog had fastened
itself on him, and there hung. Zeke bent and twisted,
his two hands on the creature’s jaws. Then
he set himself to wrench them apart. His strength,
great as it was availed nothing against that remorseless
grip. The resistance goaded him to fury.
He gave over the effort to prise the teeth apart,
and put all his might into a frenzied pull. There
were instants of resistance, then the hissing noise
of rending cloth. A huge fragment of the stout
jeans was torn out bodily. Zeke hurled the animal
violently from him. The leash was snapped from
the girl’s hands. The dog’s body shot
across the cabin, hurtled against the wall. The
indomitable brute tumbled to the floor, and lay there
stunned. But even in defeat, he carried down with
him between rigid jaws the blue-jeans banner of victory.
With a bound, the girl crossed the
space, and fell on her knees beside the inert form,
crooning over it pitifully. In the same moment,
the gust of anger in Zeke ended. He stood motionless,
except for his quickened breathing, with eyes fast
on the girl. Remorse stabbed him as he realized
her distress, for which he was responsible. He
went toward her hesitatingly, forgetful of bag and
stick, which had fallen at the outset of the melee.
He ventured to address her, stammering confusedly.
“I ‘low he hain’t
daid, nor nothin’ like thet,” he said;
“jest takin’ a nap-like.” His
wrath gave a final flicker, as he looked down at the
ugly face cushioned within the girl’s hands.
“An ornery critter like thet-thar pup ought
to be kept shet-up,” he concluded spitefully.
The girl lifted a face in which blue eyes were flaming.
“It’s you ought to be
shut up, you horrible man!” she cried. “And
you will be. I’ll see to that.”
“Now, don’t be plumb foolish,”
Zeke expostulated. “The varmint hain’t
hurt none not a mite, ma’am.”
“Beast!” the girl ejaculated, concisely.
Zeke retorted with high indignation.
“I jest nacher’ly hain’t
a-goin’ to stand still an’ say ‘Thank
ye!’ while I’m bein’ et up piecemeal
by no dawg specially one with a face like
He would have said more, but paused
with mouth agape, eyes widening, his expression horror-stricken.
For, just then, the bull-terrier snorted loudly, and
unclosed its red eyes. The clenched jaws, too,
relaxed. Thus released, the broad strip of jeans
fluttered to the floor. Its movement caught Zeke’s
gaze. He recognized the cloth. The ghastly
truth burst in his brain. In an agony of embarrassment,
he clasped his hands to that portion of his person
so fearfully despoiled. Moved by his sudden silence,
impressed perhaps by some subtle impact of this new
and dreadful emotion on his part, the girl looked
up. She, too, had noted subconsciously the fall
of the cloth from the dog’s jaws. Now as
she saw the young man’s face of fire and observed
his peculiar posture, she understood. Her own
crimson cheeks rivaled those of the afflicted one.
She turned and bent low over her reviving pet.
Her shoulders were shaking, Zeke was shuddering.