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The County had been settled as a "frontier" in early colonial days, and when it ceased to be frontier, settlement had taken a jump beyond it, and in a certain sense over it, to the richer lands of the Piedmont. When, later on, steam came, the railway simply cut across it at its narrowest part, and then skirted along just inside its border on the bank of the little river which bounded it on the north, as if it intentionally left it to one side. Thus, modern progress had not greatly interfered with it either for good or bad, and its development was entirely natural.
It was divided into "neighborhoods", a name in itself implying something both of its age and origin; for the population was old, and the customs of life and speech were old likewise.
This chronicle, however, is not of the "neighborhoods", for they were known, or may be known by any who will take the trouble to plunge boldly in and throw themselves on the hospitality of any of the dwellers therein. It is rather of the unknown tract, which lay vague and undefined in between the several neighborhoods of the upper end. The history of the former is known both in peace and in war: in the pleasant homesteads which lie on the hills above the little rivers which make down through the county to join the great river below, and in the long list of those who fell in battle, and whose names are recorded on the slabs set up by their comrades on the walls of the old Court House. The history of the latter, however, is unrecorded. The lands were in the main very poor and grown up in pine, or else, where the head-waters of a little stream made down in a number of "branches", were swampy and malarial. Possibly it was this poverty of the soil or unwholesomeness of their location, which more than anything else kept the people of this district somewhat distinct from others around them, however poor they might be. They dwelt in their little cabins among their pines, or down on the edges of the swampy district, distinct both from the gentlemen on their old plantations and from the sturdy farmer-folk who owned the smaller places. What title they had to their lands originally, or how they traced it back, or where they had come from, no one knew. They had been there from time immemorial, as long or longer, if anything, than the owners of the plantations about them; and insignificant as they were, they were not the kind to attempt to question, even had anyone been inclined to do so, which no one was.
They had the names of the old English gentry, and were a clean-limbed, blond, blue-eyed people.
When they were growing to middle age, their life told on them and made them weather-beaten, and not infrequently hard-visaged; but when they were young there were often among them straight, supple young fellows with clear-cut features, and lithe, willowy-looking girls, with pink faces and blue, or brown, or hazel eyes, and a mien which one might have expected to find in a hall rather than in a cabin.
Darby Stanley and Cove Mills (short for Coverley) were the leaders of the rival factions of the district. They lived as their fathers had lived before them, on opposite sides of the little stream, the branches of which crept through the alder and gum thickets between them, and contributed to make the district almost as impenetrable to the uninitiated as a mountain fastness. The long log-cabin of the Cove-Millses, where room had been added to room in a straight line, until it looked like the side of a log fort, peeped from its pines across at the clearing where the hardly more pretentious home of Darby Stanley was set back amid a little orchard of ragged peach-trees, and half hidden under a great wistaria vine. But though the two places lay within rifle shot of each other, they were almost as completely divided as if the big river below had rolled between them. Since the great fight between old Darby and Cove Mills over Henry Clay, there had rarely been an election in which some members of the two families had not had a "clinch". They had to be thrown together sometimes "at meeting", and their children now and then met down on the river fishing, or at "the washing hole", as the deep place in the little stream below where the branches ran together was called; but they held themselves as much aloof from each other as their higher neighbors, the Hampdens and the Douwills, did on their plantations. The children, of course, would "run together", nor did the parents take steps to prevent them, sure that they would, as they grew up, take their own sides as naturally as they themselves had done in their day. Meantime "children were children", and they need not be worried with things like grown-up folk.
When Aaron Hall died and left his little farm and all his small belongings to educate free the children of his poor neighbors, the farmers about availed themselves of his benefaction, and the children for six miles around used to attend the little school which was started in the large hewn-log school-house on the roadside known as "Hall's Free School". Few people knew the plain, homely, hard-working man, or wholly understood him. Some thought him stingy, some weak-minded, some only queer, and at first his benefaction was hardly comprehended; but in time quite a little oasis began about the little fountain, which the poor farmer's bequest had opened under the big oaks by the wayside, and gradually its borders extended, until finally it penetrated as far as the district, and Cove Mills's children appeared one morning at the door of the little school-house, and, with sheepish faces and timid voices, informed the teacher that their father had sent them to school.
At first there was some debate over at Darby Stanley's place, whether they should show their contempt for the new departure of the Millses, by standing out against them, or should follow their example. It was hard for a Stanley to have to follow a Mills in anything. So they stood out for a year. As it seemed, however, that the Millses were getting something to which the Stanleys were as much entitled as they, one morning little Darby Stanley walked in at the door, and without taking his hat off, announced that he had come to go to school. He was about fifteen at the time, but he must have been nearly six feet (his sobriquet being wholly due to the fact that Big Darby was older, not taller), and though he was spare, there was something about his face as he stood in the open door, or his eye as it rested defiantly on the teacher's face, which prevented more than a general buzz of surprise.
"Take off your hat," said the teacher, and he took it off slowly. "I suppose you can read?" was the first question.
A snicker ran round the room, and little Darby's brow clouded.
As he not only could not read, but could not even spell, and in fact did not know his letters, he was put into the alphabet class, the class of the smallest children in the school.
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Page's Short Stories -by- Thomas Nelson Page