The Code of the Mountains
Charles Neville Buck
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This morning the boy from the forks of Troublesome Creek had back his name once more. It was not a distinguished name, nor one to be flaunted in pride of race or achievement. On the contrary, it was a synonym for violent law-breaking and in the homely parlance of the Cumberland ridges, where certain infractions are condoned, it stood for "pizen meanness." Generations of Spooners before him had taken up the surname and carried it like runners in a relay race—often into evil ways. Many had laid down their lives and name with abruptness and violence.
When the pioneers first set their feet into the Wilderness trail out of Virginia, some left because the vague hinterland west of the ridges placed them "beyond the law's pursuing."
Tradition said that of the latter class were the Spooners, but Newt Spooner had no occasion to probe the remote past for a record of turpitude. It lay before him inscribed in a round clerical hand on the ledger which the warden of the Frankfort Penitentiary was just closing. Though the Governor's clemency had expunged the red charge of murder set against his name at the tender age of eighteen, there was another record which the Governor could not erase. A sunken grave bore testimony in a steep mountainside burial-ground back in "Bloody Breathitt," where dead weed stalks rattled and tangled ropes of fox-grapes bore their fruit in due season.
However, even the name of Newt Spooner is a better thing than the Number 813, which for two years had been his designation within those gray and fortressed walls along whose tops sentry-boxes punctuated the angles.
This morning he wore a suit of black clothes, the gift of the commonwealth, and his eyes were fixed rather avidly on a five-dollar note which the warden held tightly between his thumb and forefinger. Newt knew that the bill, too, was to be his. Yet the warden seemed needlessly deliberate in making the presentation. That functionary intended first to have something to say; something meant in all kindliness, but as Newt waited, shifting his bulk uneasily from foot to foot, his narrowed eyes traveled with restlessness, and his thin lips clamped themselves into a line indicative of neither gratitude nor penitence. The convict's thoughts for two years had been circling with uncomplicated directness about one focus. Newt Spooner had a fixed idea.