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The Last Stetson   By: (1863-1919)

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By John Fox Jr.


A MIDSUMMER freshet was running over old Gabe Bunch's water wheel into the Cumberland. Inside the mill Steve Marcum lay in one dark corner with a slouched hat over his face. The boy Isom was emptying a sack of corn into the hopper. Old Gabe was speaking his mind.

Always the miller had been a man of peace; and there was one time when he thought the old Stetson Lewallen feud was done. That was when Rome Stetson, the last but one of his name, and Jasper Lewallen, the last but one of his, put their guns down and fought with bare fists on a high ledge above old Gabe's mill one morning at daybreak. The man who was beaten was to leave the mountains; the other was to stay at home and have peace. Steve Marcum, a Stetson, heard the sworn terms and saw the fight. Jasper was fairly whipped; and when Rome let him up he proved treacherous and ran for his gun. Rome ran too, but stumbled and fell. Jasper whirled with his Winchester and was about to kill Rome where he lay, when a bullet came from somewhere and dropped him back to the ledge again. Both Steve Marcum and Rome Stetson said they had not fired the shot; neither would say who had. Some thought one man was lying, some thought the other was, and Jasper's death lay between the two. State troops came then, under the Governor's order, from the Blue Grass, and Rome had to drift down the river one night in old Gabe's canoe and on Out of the mountains for good. Martha Lewallen, who, though Jasper's sister, and the last of the name, loved and believed Rome, went with him. Marcums and Braytons who had taken sides in the fight hid in the bushes around Hazlan, or climbed over into Virginia. A railroad started up the Cumberland. "Furriners came in to buy wild lands and get out timber." Civilization began to press over the mountains and down on Hazlan, as it had pressed in on Breathitt, the seat of another feud, in another county. In Breathitt the feud was long past, and with good reason old Gabe thought that it was done in Hazlan.

But that autumn a panic started over from England. It stopped the railroad far down the Cumberland; it sent the "furriners" home, and drove civilization back. Marcums and Braytons came in from hiding, and drifted one by one to the old fighting ground. In time they took up the old quarrel, and with Steve Marcum and Steve Brayton as leaders, the old Stetson Lewallen feud went on, though but one soul was left in the mountains of either name. That was Isom, a pale little fellow whom Rome had left in old Gabe's care; and he, though a Stetson and a half brother to Rome, was not counted, because he was only a boy and a foundling, and because his ways were queer.

There was no open rupture, no organized division that might happen no more. The mischief was individual now, and ambushing was more common. Certain men were looking for each other, and it was a question of "draw in' quick 'n' shootin' quick" when the two met by accident, or of getting the advantage "from the bresh."

In time Steve Marcum had come face to face with old Steve Brayton in Hazlan, and the two Steves, as they were known, drew promptly. Marcum was in the dust when the smoke cleared away; and now, after three months in bed, he was just out again. He had come down to the mill to see Isom. This was the miller's first chance for remonstrance, and, as usual, he began to lay it down that every man who had taken a human life must sooner or later pay for it with his own. It was an old story to Isom, and, with a shake of impatience, he turned out the door of the mill, and left old Gabe droning on under his dusty hat to Steve, who, being heavy with "moonshine," dropped asleep.

Outside the sun was warm, the flood was calling from the dam, and the boy's petulance was gone at once. For a moment he stood on the rude platform watching the tide; then he let one bare foot into the water, and, with a shiver of delight, dropped from the boards. In a moment his clothes were on the ground behind a laurel thicket, and his slim white body was flashing like a faun through the reeds and bushes up stream... Continue reading book >>

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