THE BOY FROM HOLLOW HUT
The Boy From Hollow Hut
A STORY OF THE KENTUCKY MOUNTAINS
By ISLA MAY MULLINS
New York Chicago Toronto
Fleming H. Revell Company
London and Edinburgh
Copyright, 1911, by
FLEMING H. REVELL COMPANY
New York: 158 Fifth Avenue
Chicago: 17 North Wabash Ave.
London: 21 Paternoster Square
Edinburgh: 75 Princes Street
To MRS. J. B. MARVIN
Whose unceasing devotion to the cause of education in the mountains of Kentucky inspired this little story
I. A STRANGER AND A PROMISE 11 II. A PACKAGE BY MAIL 24 III. IN THE WILDERNESS 36 IV. A HALT ON THE ROAD 44 V. A DOUBLE RESCUE 57 VI. AN UNEXPECTED MEETING 72 VII. A TRIP TO THE CITY 78 VIII. OPPORTUNITY 91 IX. A STARTLING APPEARANCE 98 X. STEVE DEVELOPS A MIND OF HIS OWN 111 XI. EXPERIENCE 129 XII. LOVE'S AWAKENING 149 XIII. OLD TIES RENEWED 160 XIV. "ALL RIGHT, SON" 180 XV. FLICKERING HOPE 190 XVI. IN THE CRUCIBLE 198 XVII. FRUITION 204
"I kin kill rabbits if I can't do nothin' else" Frontispiece The Old Greely Mill 70 "Hit's Champ fer his pappy" 142 "Tilda pacing back and forth at her spinning-wheel" 174
THE BOY FROM HOLLOW HUT
A STRANGER AND A PROMISE
The rabbit bounded away and was lost in the underbrush. Steve stood looking disgustedly after him, a limp figure, one shoulder dropping until the old knit suspender fell at his side, and a sullen, discouraged look settling in his brown eyes.
"I ain' no hunter noways. Peers lack I don't even know 'nough to ketch a rabbit," he said with scorn. "Whar's that lazy Tige anyways?" he added, his scorn merging into wrath.
Then jerking the old suspender in place he straightened up on his sturdy, bare feet, and darted through the underbrush in the direction where the rabbit had disappeared.
"I'll ketch you yit, yes I will, you same old cottontail," he muttered through clenched teeth.
There it was again! Just a moment the round, gray back darted above the bushes, and then plunging into deeper undergrowth, bounded on and on. But the slim, knotty brown legs plunged on and on too, till at last a swift, cruel stone felled the unlucky little woodlander, for Steve was a most skillful marksman.
"Huh! thought you'd git away from me, did ye?" said the boy, picking up the still body. "I reckons I kin do some things yit," he said, "ef I don't know much."
The boy was in a strange, new mood. He did not understand himself. Though a good hunter for a lad of twelve he had been heretofore a generous friend or conqueror of the fur and feathered folk, wont to deal gently with a fallen foe. Now he jerked up the limp body of the rabbit savagely and struck its head spitefully against a near-by tree trunk.
"I kin kill rabbits ef I can't do nothin' else."
Just then a big black and tan dog came into view with the dignity befitting age. Boy and dog had been born the same month, but while one was scarcely well entered upon life, the other's race was almost run. The boy was usually most considerate of the infirmities of his lifelong friend, but to-day he scolded the dog till with drooping tail and grieved, uncomprehending eyes he slunk away out of sight.
A strange experience had come to the mountain boy the day before which had changed his whole world. It was as though the wooded mountains which hemmed in his little cabin home had parted for a moment and given him a glimpse of a fascinating world beyond. He and Tige had wandered farther from home that day than ever before, though wanderers they had always been, the woods holding a deep interest for Steve. He loved to hide in the densest solitudes, lie still with his dog and dream, fantastic, unreal dreams. Now a definite, tangible vision had come to him out of the solitude of a hazy November day in the mountains of Kentucky. He had lain for two hours or more in the stillness when suddenly Tige lifted his head and gave a sharp bark, then came the sound of voices, strange voices Steve at once knew them to be, and as he caught the tones more clearly, recognized that one at least was of a kind which he had never heard before. Keeping Tige quiet with a firm hand, he lifted his head and listened with ear and soul, then into view stepped a man of medium height with a clean, fine face, clothes of a sort unknown to the boy, and an easy, alert stride totally foreign to the mountaineer's slouching gait. A mountain man accompanied him, but he too was a stranger to the boy.
The man of the new, strange species smiled at the boy's gaping mouth and wonder-wide eyes.
"Well, son," he said pleasantly, "are you a sportsman too?"
The quick, clear, cultured voice, the unfamiliar accent was so utterly foreign to anything the boy had ever heard that he could not take in the import of the words, and amazed silence was his only reply.
"Wal," drawled the mountain guide, "who'd er thought er seein' a chap lack that heah? Whar'd you come from anyways?"
This was familiar vernacular, and Steve, rising slowly from the ground, and allowing Tige to make friendly acquaintance with the strangers, said:
"I lives at Hollow Hut and I comes over here whenever I pleases. Whar'd you uns come from?"
The man gave a hearty but musical laugh at the ready dignity of the reply, but the boy's mouth dropped once more in consternation, as words came again in crisp, foreign accent.
"I came from the city, my lad, to get some of your fine quail and deer. You are willing I should have a few, are you not? My friend here is showing me the way."
The mountain folk had proved a most entertaining study for this sportsman, and his interest was ready for each new specimen encountered. Turning to the guide he said:
"Suppose we lunch here," and taking out his watch continued, "yes, it is high time; twelve thirty to the minute."
The boy stepped forward involuntarily for a look at the queer, pretty thing in the man's hand.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Why, that's a watch, son. Didn't you ever see one?" said the man kindly.
The guide smiled derisively: "Wal, I reckons not," while the boy, too interested for reply, asked again:
"What's a watch?" and the man with his genial laugh said:
"Son, we will be greatly pleased if you will take lunch with us. My name is Polk, Samuel Polk," he said, touching his cap with the unfailing courtesy of a true gentleman. "And after we eat I will show you the watch and tell you all about it."
But the mountaineer does not readily eat with "furriners," so Steve stood near by and looked on while the two men ate very strange things. Little cans were opened and tiny fish taken out that looked exceedingly queer. Mr. Polk, trying to persuade the boy to eat, explained that these were sardines, some square, white things were crackers, a thick stuff was cheese and that some big, round, yellow things were oranges. But Steve only stared in silence till the meal was over though Tige, with no instinctive handicap, accepted delicious scraps with astonishment and relish.
So amazed, however, had the boy been with it all that he nearly forgot about the watch. But when he remembered and the man let him take it in his rusty, brown fingers, that was the most wonderful moment of all. The tick, tick inside was a marvel, almost a thing uncanny to the boy, and when it was explained how the hands went round and round, telling the time of day, it surely seemed a thing beyond mortal ken.
The guide drawled out with a superior air: "Wal, sonny, you come from the backwoods shore ef you never heerd tell of a watch before."
The boy looked squarely at him in sullen resentment a moment, but with such opportunity at hand he wouldn't waste time with the likes of him. He asked, "What moves them things round?" and the man kindly opened the watch at the back and displayed all the cunning wheels which respond to the loosening spring, explained how it was wound each day to keep it from running down, and in answer to the boy's eager questions as to how such things were made told him something of watch manufacture.
At last the wonderful hour was over and the two strange men prepared to leave.
"Good-bye, son," said the man; "one of these days you will leave the mountains and go out into the big world to live a life of usefulness and honour, I hope."
The words, so simple and commonplace to the man, were to the boy like a telescope lifted to the unknown heavens, but through which he could not yet look. He watched the men go down the mountainside, the strange words which he did not comprehend, but was never to forget, ringing in his ears. A bit of heavy timber hid them at last, and the boy stood dejected a moment, his heart swelling with an agony of strange longing, while the dog looked up at him almost pleading to understand. Then suddenly, with a cry of hope, Steve sprang after them, the dog following. Breathless he came upon them, and the man turned in surprise at the tragic voice and face. When the boy could speak he panted out:
"I've got the bes' fox skin anywheres hereabout. I'll swap it with you uns fer that watch thing."
The man suppressed a smile and kindly replied:
"Why, lad, I couldn't do without it for the rest of this hunting trip, but I tell you what I will do. When I get back to the city I'll send you one."
"Then ef yer'll come home with me I'll give ye the fox skin now," the boy responded promptly.
"Oh, never mind about the fox skin now; I must get back to camp before dark and we are many miles away," said the man.
"But I can't take the watch 'thout you git the skin," said the boy sturdily.
"Well, now, I'll tell you," said the man, realizing that he had struck the stubborn, independent pride of a mountaineer. "You give me your name, tell me where you live and I'll send you the watch; then next time I'm over here I'll get the skin." The address was a difficult matter to determine, but the mountaineer helped them out.
This satisfied the boy and he saw the two strangers depart with better spirit, since he could look forward to the coming of the watch. He did not understand how it would ever reach him, but trusted the stranger implicitly. When the last sound of departing feet among the underbrush had died away, Steve turned and went home with long, rapid strides, the dog recognizing the relief and following with wagging tail.
He found supper on the table, the savoury bacon and hoe-cake greeting him from the door. The head of the family, lean, lank and brown, was already transporting huge mouthfuls from the tin platter to his mouth; the fat, slovenly daughter sat for a moment to rest and cool her face before beginning to eat, while the mother still occupied a chimney corner, pipe in mouth, for she "hadn't wanted nothin' to eat lately, her stomick seemed off the hooks somehow." These, with the boy, composed the family, a row of graves out under the trees at the back of the hut filling the long gap between Mirandy, a young woman of twenty-one, and Steve. The boy sat down, but before he ate that remarkable tale of his morning experience had to be told. When he was done the father said:
"Huh, better let city folks alone; don't have nothin' to do with none of 'em."
The boy, feeling the rebuke, then turned to his supper, but when his father had gone out to smoke, and Mirandy was in the lane looking for her sweetheart, Steve stole up to his mother's side and stood digging his toe in the sand hearth.
"Mammy," he said at last, "what makes that man diffrunt from we uns?"
The old woman smoked a moment in silence and then said:
"Wal, there's a heap over the mountains what makes him diffrunt,—things we ain' never seen ner heern tell on." She smoked again a puff or two, then added, "I recken schoolin's the most."
"What's schoolin'?" said the boy.
"Larnin' things," she replied.
The subject of schools had never been discussed in the boy's hearing. His father didn't believe in them, there wasn't a book, not even a Bible, in all the scattered little remote mountain community, and if the boy had ever heard either books or schools mentioned before the words had made no impression on him.
"Do they larn to make watch things thar?" he asked.
His mother said she supposed so, "she knew they larned out o' things they called books," and then she explained as best she could to him what schools and books were. When his father came in again Steve said boldly:
"Pappy, I'm er goin' over the mountains an' larn how to make them watch things."
The mountaineer stood as if paralyzed a moment, then his dull eyes blazed.
"No, you won't nuther! Not a step will ye go! Ye shan't nuver hev nothin' to do with no city folks, so help me God!"
The boy dropped back cowed and trembling; he had never seen his father so stirred. He didn't dare ask a question, but when the mountaineer had seated himself in the chimney corner opposite his wife, he continued:
"City folks with all their larnin', fine clothes an' fine ways ain't to be depended on. I wouldn't trus' one of 'em with a jay bird lessen I wanted to git shed of it. Don't you let me hear no mo' o' your goin' over the mountains arter city folks."
The prejudice of some mountaineers against the city is deep-seated. They have little use for the "settlements," meaning the smaller towns, but the city is their abomination. Jim Langly's prejudice was even stronger than that of the average mountain man of this type, for it had been a matter of contention between himself and his wife in the early days of their married life. She had always longed to see what was beyond the mountains and besieged him to go till the subject could no more be mentioned between them.
Steve soon climbed to his bed in a corner of the room with a very heavy heart. If city folks weren't to be depended on then he would never get that watch, and all the beautiful visions of learning to do things in a wonderful new world grew dim and uncertain. So heavy was his heart as he fell asleep that when he waked at daylight, it was with a terrible sense of loss and grief. The morning meal over he wandered off with Tige, dull and dejected, till the unlucky rabbit had crossed his path and stirred strange, resentful enmity towards his little familiar contestants of the woods. Sending the dog angrily off he skinned the rabbit with savage jerks and then carried it at once back to his home, saying:
"Fry it, 'Randy, fry it dog-goned hard."
His mother caught the sullen, angry tone, and when Mirandy went out in the kitchen to begin the dinner, she called him from where he sat on the door-step.
"Come here, sonny."
It was a rare term of endearment, and Steve got up quickly and went to her side.
"Don't think too much o' whut ye pappy said about city folks. He's allus hated 'em fer some reason, I don't know whut, 'less hit was 'cause I saw one when I was a gal afore we married, nuver min' how ner where, and arter that I allus wanted to see whut was over the mountings. Ef ever ye git a chanct I want ye ter go thar an' larn ter do things. I'd er done hit ef I'd er been a man. But don't say nothin' to ye pappy."
This caution was unnecessary; and what a change the simple words made for Steve! His spirit bounded up into the world of visions again, and when dinner was on the table he refused to take a mouthful of the savoury rabbit, so ashamed was he of the manner of its killing.
After this his mind was constantly on the watch which was to come. How it was to reach him he did not think out, for the simple reason that he knew nothing of the distance which stretched between him and the city, nor of methods of communication. No letter or piece of mail of any sort had ever come to his home, or that of any one else of which he knew but things of various sorts were gotten from the crossroads store ten miles away, skillets and pans, axes and hoes, which were made somewhere, and he supposed some time when some one of the community went to the store they'd find his watch there. But week after week went by till spring came on, and nobody went to the store. The mountain folk indeed had little need of stores. They spun and wove the cloth for their clothes, raised their corn, pigs, and tobacco, made their own "sweetin'," long and short, meaning sugar and molasses, and distilled their own whiskey. So the boy's heart grew heavy again with the long delay and he began to think bitterly that his father and not his mother was right, when one day a stranger whom he had never seen before drove up to the door.
A PACKAGE BY MAIL
"Howdye! Does airy feller named Stephen Langly live here?" said the stranger, reining in his tired, raw-boned steed without difficulty.
Mirandy went to the cabin door, stared a minute in surprise and then shook her head slowly. But Steve pushed past her saying:
"Yes, thar is, too. I'm Stephen Langly."
"You! Sakes erlive, I clean forgot that was yo' name!" and his sister laughed lazily, while the stranger joined in.
"Wal, you're a powerful little chap to be a-gittin' mail. But this here thing has yo' name on it, they tole me at the store, an' so I brung it along as I was a-comin' this-a-way. Hit's been thar mo' than three months they tole me."
Steve took the package, his hands trembling with eagerness and would have darted away to the woods with his treasure where he might look upon it first alone, but Mirandy stormed when he turned to go, and the man said:
"'Pears to me you mought show what ye got, when I brung it all this long ways to ye."
That did seem the fair thing to do, so when they had asked the man to "light and hitch," Steve sat down on the door-step and removed the wrappings from the square box; there was tissue paper first, a miracle of daintiness which the boy had never beheld before, and at last the watch came to view. Steve lifted it in trembling fingers, and while Mirandy and the man expressed their admiration his first quivering words were:
"That other one was yaller."
"Wal, now," said Mirandy, "that one was gold; you couldn't expect that man to send you no gold."
Mirandy, having a precious gilded trinket, was better posted on the colour and value of metals than Steve, though she made a slight error in her next statement.
"This hern is silver; that's the next thing to gold," and the bright nickel of the Waterbury twinkled in the spring sunshine as though trying to measure up to its admirers' estimate.
"A silver watch," said the stranger after he had heard the story of that autumn day with its promise of a watch which was just now fulfilled—"wal, you air a lucky boy, shore."
Mrs. Langly called feebly from within, and Steve went and laid it on the bed beside her. Her "stomick had never seemed to get on the hooks," as she expressed it, all winter; her spinning-wheel and loom had been long silent, and for a few days she had not left her bed.
Her eyes gleamed with strange, new fire as they fell upon the shining thing which belonged to another world from theirs, and when Steve had laboriously wound it, which he had not forgotten how to do, setting the wonderful machinery running, she whispered to him:
"Remember you air goin' whar you kin larn to make things lack that."
Steve's shining eyes answered hers, though the boy failed to catch the light of prophecy and final benediction which they held. Hugging his treasure, with no hint of oncoming change he went out to feed the stranger's horse while Mirandy prepared the dinner.
It was not until the visitor had gone and Steve was in the solitude of the woods with Tige that he found fullest joy in his new possession. It seemed to him he could never in all his life take his eyes from it again. He watched the hands go round and round, the little flying second hand, the more leisurely minute marker and the creeping hand which told the hours as they passed. Then again and again the back was opened and the busy little wheels held his breathless interest. He took no notice of Tige, but the old dog knew that his mate was happy and lay content beside him. Although for the first time in possession of a noter of the hours, he lost all account of time and did not move from the mossy bed where he had thrown himself until it was too late to see either hands or wheels. Then he called Tige to come and hurried back to his home to sit by the cabin firelight till Mirandy made him go to bed. The family all slept in the same room, three beds occupying corners; this main room and the lean-to kitchen constituting the whole house.
Steve's watch never left his hand the long night through, and for the first time in his uneventful life he slept fitfully, waking every little while to make sure it was there.
Jim Langly was away for a few days "to a logrolling" several miles away and did not return until dusk of the evening after Steve's watch came. The boy sat again by the firelight, watch in hand, when Jim walked in at the door. His eyes fell at once upon the strange, shining thing and his face was convulsed with sudden wrath:
"Didn't I tell ye to have nothin' to do with city folks? Ye shan't keep that thing. I'll smash it, so he'p me God!" But before he could lift a hand a scream came from the bed, and Mrs. Langly sat up wild and dishevelled.
"Let him hev it, Jim Langly, let him hev it," and then she dropped back gray and still. Jim Langly had seen that gray stillness before, and he stood looking upon it now in dumb terror. His wife had been ailing a long time, it was true, yet no one had thought of death. But the grim visitor was there in all his quiet majesty. The weary spirit, which had for so many years longed for flight into new haunts of men, had winged its way at last to a far, mysterious country of which she had heard little, but towards which for months past she had been reaching out with a strange prescience of which no one guessed.
It was a dreary night at the cabin. No one tried to sleep. Jim Langly said no more to Steve about the watch, and the boy wore it in his bosom attached to a stout string about his neck, keeping it out of sight, and sobbing in the stillness of the woods as he wandered with Tige, "Mammy wanted me to have it." And though his joy in it for the time was gone, there was peculiar comfort in this thought of her approval. The old dog looked up in the boy's face from time to time pitifully, or stuck his nose in the lad's hand, knowing well, in a way dogs have, what had happened.
Next day the wife and mother was laid to rest beside the row of little graves, and life completely changed for Steve. He went to bed as usual in his corner of the room, but he could not forget the still form which had lain in another corner the night before, and while Mirandy and his father slept heavily, he slipped from the bed, took a blanket and with Tige at his heels went into the woods again. Here in the stillness which he loved, worn out with loss of sleep and his first encounter with grief, nestling close to old Tige slumber came and held him until late the next day. His father and Mirandy paid little attention to what he did, so night after night he took his blanket and dog and slept in the woods, the two only going to the cabin for meals.
During all these strange, restless days the words of Steve's mother came to him over and over: "Remember you air goin' whar you kin larn to make things lack that watch." And he thought, "How am I a-goin' lessen I jes' go?" He knew his father would never give him permission, it was not worth while to ask it, so gradually his plans took shape in the solitude of the woods with no one to counsel. Had the boy known what distance lay between him and his goal he would have grown faint-hearted, but he had no conception of what his undertaking meant. So he laid his plans with good courage, which plans, of course, included the taking of his dog. For three or four days Steve took an extra share of corn pone and bacon, Mirandy not noticing in her shiftless manner of providing, and feeling the loss of her mother, she was even more listless than usual. These extra rations for himself and Tige Steve carried to the woods and laid away. Then his beloved fox skin, the greatest treasure which he possessed beside the watch, he must take that with him, because it was "the man's"; he had promised it in return for the watch, and now that he was going he must take it along to give to the man. The boy had no thought of any difficulty in such a search. The food, the skin, the watch, and the scanty clothes he wore constituted all his equipment for the journey. When he started out with the skin Mirandy lazily asked what he was going to do with it, and he replied: "Use it fer a piller in the woods."
"Ye better quit sleepin' out thar," she said; "somethin' 'll eat ye up some night."
"I ain't a-feerd," he said, and she thought no more about it.
Three days passed with a good accumulation of food, and as Steve and Tige lay down to sleep at night the boy said:
"Tige, we've gotter be a-goin' 'bout day arter ter-morrer," and the dog wagged sleepy assent. But next morning when Steve wakened a peculiar stillness smote him. Tige was usually alert at his least move. With intuitive alarm Steve put out his hand,—and touched a rigid body! Drawing back he sprang to his feet, a cry of anguished appeal on his lips:
"O Tige, Tige, ye ain't dead too?"
But death makes no reply. His lifelong playmate lay straightened out in that last unalterable, mysterious sleep.
The boy was too stunned for tears. He knelt beside his dog in silent misery. After a long while he rose from the ground and going to a moss-covered rock near by where laurel and forget-me-nots blossomed and rhododendron bells hung in clusters, with a stout stick and his sturdy hands he dug beneath the rock an opening large enough to hold his dead dog. Then he went back to where his old playmate lay, and lifting the stiffened body in his arms he stumbled blindly to the rock and laid it away.
Towards evening he slowly made his lonely way home.
Mirandy, missing the dog at last, inquired: "Whar's Tige?" and Steve's stiff lips articulated the one word, "Dead."
She replied indifferently, "Wal, he want no 'count any mo'. I reckons hit's a good thing."
Steve had no answer and with swelling heart made his way to the woods to sleep alone. It was long before he could sleep, and as he lay in the unbearable loneliness, he decided that next morning he would start on that journey to the unknown. Perhaps to that new world sorrow would not follow! He would not need so much food now; he had enough saved already. The death of the dog urged him on to his purpose as nothing else could have done.
He went down to the cabin next morning for the last time. It was a warm spring morning. Passing Mirandy sitting on the door-step, her breakfast dishes not yet washed, he paused a minute, longing to say something, for although the bond between them was of blood and not of the heart, yet she was part of the life from which he was tearing himself away, and he longed to sob out a good-bye. But he must not, so choking down words and tears he stumbled off, never once looking back. His father sat in the chimney corner smoking his morning pipe, but father and son had always lacked interests in common, and the coming of the watch had put an insurmountable barrier between them. So Steve's only thought in passing him had been to escape suspicion. It was to his mother that the boy had always shyly told his day-dreams in the woods,—dreams which reached out into a wonder world lying beyond the mountains. And she had smoked her pipe in silent sympathy, occasionally asking: "Did ye see big houses, rows and rows of 'em on land, and some a-ridin' the water? I've hearn tell of 'em in my day," so furnishing inspiration for more dreams in the future.
"O Mammy, O Tige," sobbed the boy when safe at last in the woods, and he threw himself down in an agony of weeping beside the rock where the old dog lay buried. When calm at last, he took up his bundle of bread and bacon wrapped about with his fox skin, and started slowly away. He took no thought as to direction, he was simply "goin'," as his mother had told him. A dismal rain soon set in, but on and on he persistently tramped all the long day, water dripping from his ragged trousers and old hat as he went farther and farther away from all he had ever known. He met no one, saw no habitation anywhere, only the startled denizens of the wood scurrying here and there out of his path. Over mountains and across ravines he went on and on. He was puzzled and discouraged when night dropped down, and his aching feet and tired legs said he must have travelled many miles. "Shorely I'll git thar to-morrer," he said, as he lay down upon his fox skin, but another weary day of tramping over unknown ways without sight of any human being brought terror to his sturdy heart and when he lay down alone at night he felt that he was the only human being in the universe. Oh, if he only had Tige!
All the people he had known and those he expected to see beyond the mountains seemed to have sunk into some great unseen abyss. He could never find his way back to the old cabin, he knew, and he began to feel that he could never reach forward to the wonderful city of which he had dreamed. In the agony of loneliness and the chill of night which settled upon him he cried again, "O Tige, O Mammy!" Did the tender mother-arms reach down and draw her boy near to the heart of God? At any rate he grew quiet. He remembered vaguely that he had heard how God is everywhere, and with a new strange sense of companionship with the great Creator, which comes to souls in extremity, he fell asleep and did not waken until the sun, bursting forth with new brilliance after the day of rain, had lit up the mountain tops and set the birds to singing.
He enjoyed the breakfast of very hard corn pone and bacon, and took out his beloved watch. The busy, little shining thing, which he never forgot to wind, did not mean much to him as a marker of time, for he knew little about the hours as enumerated by the watch, but it was on this morning of new courage a fresh pledge of wonderful things awaiting him. He started on again with steady strides, and tramped bravely till mid afternoon without adventure.
Suddenly, without premonition, his heart thrilled at faint sounds which seemed marvellously like those of a human voice. He stood still a moment in an agony of uncertainty, straining eye and ear for confirmation.
Yes, he was right! He caught the crackle of dry twigs and underbrush, while the faint human tones grew clear and distinct. Under the discipline of loneliness and distress the face of the untutored boy beamed with eager welcome which held no reserve and caught no suspicious glimmer of lurking treachery as near-by bushes parted and steps were close upon him.
IN THE WILDERNESS
Two men were before him, men very similar in appearance to those Steve had known, though with something in their faces which made him draw back even in the moment of joy at meeting others of his kind.
"Sakes erlive, Bub, whar'd ye come from?" called the taller, harder looking of the two.
"I come from Hollow Hut," answered the boy with his simple dignity.
"And whar you goin' to?" called the other man, while both laughed unpleasantly.
"Ter the city," said the boy.
"Wal, now, that's a pretty nice fox skin ye got rolled up thar," said the tall one as they came closer. "S'pose you jes' hand that over to us."
"I can't," said the boy, holding it tighter in real alarm. "I swapped it with a man fer a watch, an' I'm a-takin' it ter him."
"Is that so!" exclaimed the tall man. "So you've got a watch, hev ye? Who'd a-thought it,"—and they both haw-hawed loudly. "Now, ye can jes' han' that over too, fer we mean bizness, don't we, Bill?"
And with that they pounced upon the terrified boy, jerked the fox skin from his clinging fingers and soon brought forth from its hiding-place in his bosom the beautiful, beautiful watch! Steve fought like a small tiger, but he was no match for them and stunned and bruised he soon lay upon the ground while the two men walked off, never once looking back at their helpless victim.
For a few minutes Steve could not think, so severe had been their cruel blows; then indignation, such as he had never known in his life, swept over him in a sudden flood. He sprang to his feet, ignoring pain and keenly watching which way they went, stealthily followed after. For two hours he kept within hearing of them, though being careful always that they did not get a glimpse of him. He did not know what he was going to do, but when they finally halted for the night he halted too. The men had also taken the last of his corn pone and bacon; there was nothing for him to eat, but he did not even think of it, so intently was he listening. Soon they began to sing and laugh very loudly and he knew then they had plenty of whiskey with them. Hope rose in his heart. After a bit they would fall into heavy sleep. He knew well the ways of drink.
Soon all was still, and after waiting a while till the sleep was deep he crept upon them. Fortunately the moon was up in its full glory and Steve could see plainly what he was about. He crept up close to the two snoring men and across the feet of the tall one lay his fox skin.
"I must git that anyways," said the boy to himself, "for it belongs to the man in the city."
Slowly, cautiously he lifted it from the big heavy feet, and there was not a stir. Then he stood, his heart almost bursting with longing for his watch. It was in the big man's pocket he was sure, and he stooped close a minute, reaching out a hand,—but he didn't dare. If he waked them, skin and watch would both be gone, and he must by all means get the skin to give to the man in the city. He went sorrowfully away with only the skin. He didn't dare stop near them, so he tramped half the night in spite of frequent twinges in his left ankle which had had a little twist as the men threw him down, and at last the boy dropped upon the ground, utterly exhausted, to sleep until noon next day.
When he wakened, stiff and sore from the blows of the men, and tried to get upon his feet he found that left ankle so swollen and painful he could not put the foot to the ground. He realized for the first time also with great consternation that he had nothing to eat. Bruised, sore, empty, helpless he sat alone in the woods. But even then he did not know the desolation of the night before. He felt once more that comforting sense of companionship with the great Creator, and he faced the situation sturdily.
He crept about on his knees hunting berries which he knew were good to eat. It was a laborious way to get breakfast, or more properly dinner, but he succeeded in finding enough to still somewhat the gnawing in his empty stomach, and suddenly as he lifted his head a road lay before him. With hope that was almost a tranquil certainty he crept to the roadside and sat down. An hour or more passed with only the call and song of birds to break the stillness,—when, list! There was surely a rumble of wheels! And then the cry came distinctly, "Git up thar!"
Tears of joy rained down the boy's face as a covered wagon drawn by four mules came into view, though he sturdily brushed them aside as the wagon drove up and halted.
"Hello, thar," called a lusty youthful voice, and the driver, a young fellow of perhaps nineteen who was mounted on one of the mules, turned round and saw at a glance the swollen, helpless foot.
"Done up, air ye, Bub? Whar do ye belong anyways?"
Steve knew at once that these people were friends, and told them his little story.
"I want to git to the city, so's to give the skin to the man thar an' then I'm goin' to larn to make watches an' things," he concluded.
"Wal, you air a long piece from the city, but we uns kin help ye git to the railroad and that'll take ye to the city."
Several heads of varying sizes were sticking out of the wagon by this time, and when Steve had been helped in among the occupants he found it was a family moving from one little hamlet to another. The husband and father had recently died and they were going back to their mother's home to live among her "kin."
The kindly mother at once bound up Steve's injured foot with white of egg and salt, which she said would "fetch it round all right," and hearing the empty rumbles of his poor little stomach she said she didn't believe "thar was a thing inside of it," and proceeded to give him a good square meal.
Was there ever anything happier than to be driving along the road with a comfortable foot, a full stomach and in the midst of friends! Steve had never known greater joy than that moment held. They were a "happy-go-lucky" family he had fallen in with,—and for the first time in his life he was in the midst of the merry banter of children. The mountain folk of remote regions lack a sense of humour, and Steve had grown up entirely alone, the cabins of Hollow Hut being scattered, so he sat through the afternoon in a maze of delight. There were snickers and giggles, punching in the ribs and tickling of toes from these children who lived on the border of civilization, for Steve had really gone blindly towards his goal.
As they drove gaily along Steve heard a sudden rumbling which suggested thunder, the children cried, "The train, the train," and stopping the mules quickly the big brother who was driving jumped down, while three of the children sprang out with a bound and all grasped the bridles at their heads. It was done so quickly there wasn't time to ask a question and then a monster came tearing, puffing, hissing past them. Steve's eyes almost started from their sockets and when it was past he sank back limp and quivering.
"Why, chile, didn't ye nuver see no railroad trains afore?" said the good mother.
Steve managed to say, "No," and then the children told him all the astonishing things about railroads. To his mingled joy and terror another came along from the opposite direction when they had driven on about a mile further, and this time it came more slowly, making a full stop near them.
"Whut air they a-doin' that for?" asked Steve, and when it was explained that they had stopped for fuel or water, there being no station near, a quivering light broke over his face, and remembering his watch as his mind tried to grasp new sources of motion, he said:
"They're jes' a-stoppin' to wind hit up, then."
Very soon after this they came to a cabin by the roadside and all the family within poured out to see the strangers.
"Won't you light and hitch?" drawled the man of the house, but the boy driver refused, saying they wanted "to git to their kin afore night." He suggested to Steve, however, that if he wanted to go to the city he had better stop there, for they were going further from any station than he would be there. The folks of the cabin were hearty in their invitation to the boy when they had heard his story, even the fact of his probable helplessness for a while not marring the beauty of their royal hospitality. So Steve was carefully lifted out and helped in among new friends.
The little cabin was full to overflowing with boys and girls, one girl of fifteen fondling her baby as she would a big doll, in ignorant, unlawful, and one perhaps should say innocent motherhood. She, a waif herself, had come along needing shelter and they had taken her in.
When Steve had had his supper pallets were spread everywhere about the cabin floor upon which the family went to rest fully clothed, after the fashion of mountaineers, and to the boy the night was a great contrast from the previous one in the loneliness of the woods. He thought of his own home as he had never done since he left it, wondering if his father and Mirandy would like to see him, but he never dreamed of how they had searched the woods for miles around when he was missed the second day after leaving. His failure to return the first day and night they thought little of, for he frequently did not come back after morning, but the second day's absence had brought real alarm, and when they found his blanket Mirandy said she knew something had killed and eat him up; she had forgotten about the fox skin which in that case should also have been there. But Jim Langly set his teeth grimly and said the boy had gone off "along o' that watch," and he did not cease to make inquiry as he had opportunity, trying to trace his son, while he angrily threatened to kill that city man if ever he "showed up agin in them parts."
A HALT ON THE ROAD
Steve spent a week in the crowded but hospitable cabin of his latest friends resting the swollen foot. It was not seriously sprained and would have given him no trouble but for the long tramp upon it the night before and his general fatigue.
He had an interesting time with this family on the roadside. They were of the most shiftless type of mountain folk. Life was a long holiday to them, every meal a picnic. There were too many to gather about the table in the little log lean-to, so the elders only sat down at meal times. The children came up shuffling, pushing and squirming good naturedly to get their portions and ran away again full-handed to sit on the door-step or flat upon the ground outside while they ate. Sometimes one ambitious consumer would succeed in disposing of his viands more rapidly than the others and then woe to some small delinquent! His food would be snatched away and a lively fisticuff probably follow during which the inevitable "yaller dog" was usually the gainer. The disturbance at times reached a height which brought the mother lazily to the door with a mild:
"Now ef ye alls don't quit fussin', I'll set the boogers arter ye ter-night," which was a dire and telling threat, for, to the mountain children, "boogers" meant ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, thieves, or any other terrible, mysterious creature of the night.
Steve went up to the table with the rest for his portion of food, and took his chances with the other children if a squabble began. Association with the children was most enjoyable to Steve. They told marvellous tales about giants and mountain feuds and the mother's threat of "boogers" was sure to stir up all their recollections about ghosts. Wherever there was a "killin'" as the result of a mountain feud ghosts were sure to congregate and marvellous were the tales which clustered about each bloody spot. Steve being a new listener must hear all these old tragic stories.
When meals were over, the family disposed themselves to their liking. The head of the house invariably lit his pipe and sat in the chimney corner to smoke, a custom quite familiar to Steve. The mother washed the skillet and few utensils used about the meal, smoking her pipe the while. The young girl sat down outside in the sun to play with her baby, the big boys perhaps went off hunting and the children wandered aimlessly in and out.
The fields of corn and tobacco had been planted and now there was little to do but watch it grow, so they thought. The hogs practically took care of themselves. What more could any one demand, a blank look would unconsciously have inquired, if asked why they did not work.
When the day was over and the troop of children began to grow sleepy, one after another dropped down upon the cabin floor, perhaps upon a pallet, perhaps not, and fell asleep. The older ones followed in the same way, as inclination suggested, and room was cheerfully made for Steve among the rest. For a night or two the full chorus of audible breathing wakened him frequently, but he soon became accustomed to it.
In the morning the voice of some child was apt to be heard first:
"Mammy, I'm hongry."
And the reply would come, "Now you shet up, 'tain't time ter be gittin' up yit," or perhaps the satisfied parent would yawn and say:
"Wal, I reckons I might as well git up and stop ye mouth," and so the household would gradually emerge from slumber.
This was the normal daily life, but comedy and tragedy came to them as to the rest of the world, and Steve had a taste of both during his stay of a week.
Unlike Hollow Hut it was a somewhat thickly settled community and one moonlight night some young folks from neighbouring cabins came in. Steve's friends made the visitors welcome and hailed with delight the banjo which one of them had brought. The young folks were out for a frolic and laugh and joke were ready.
Pretty soon the banjo began to tune up and set everybody's feet to patting.
"Clear out things," called one of the boys, and in no time the few articles the room held were out of the way. Then the air vibrated with "Hook and Line," "Sourwood Mountain," and other lively tunes, while everybody danced except Steve, who crept to the farthest corner and in wonder looked and listened. He had never seen dancing or heard music before.
The girl with the baby came and dropped it down upon his lap while she joined in the fun, and it almost seemed that the cabin itself would break from its moorings in the abandon of rollicking, swaying motion.
When everybody was tired out the banjo player, a young fellow with deep-set black eyes and the unmistakable look of an artist in embryo, swung into a monologue accompanied by the banjo, part talk, part song, describing a fox hunt which was most fascinating and altogether remarkable.
He called the hounds with "Here Tige," "Here Jack," "Here Spot," "Here Bob-tail," interspersed with the tooting of a horn, long musical whistles and the banjo striking soft staccato chords. He mustered the men, he raced the horses with excited calls of "Git up thar," and gave clever imitation of fleeing hoofs, "to-bucket, to-bucket, to-bucket," in a rapid, low, chanting song. Then the leading hound opened with a plaintive bay "how!-oo-oo-oo, how!-oo-oo-oo," and one by one the others joined in with varying notes till it swelled to a weird chorus of baying hounds which the banjo and the musician's voice made most realistic. Next the fox was spied and there were cries of "Hello! Ho! Here he is!" "There he runs," with the banjo thumping like mad! Then the medley shaded down into a wild, monotonous drumming from the strings and the voice, which represented most thrillingly the chase at full height. At last the fox was caught with dogs barking, men calling, and banjo shrilling a triumphant strain in stirring climax.
Steve followed it all in breathless excitement, and the rest of the audience received it with boisterous enthusiasm.
After this somebody started the lovely old ballad, "Barbary Allen," in which all joined; then, "I have a True Love in the Army," and "The Swapping Song" followed, while "Whistle up your Dogs, Boys, and Shoulder your Guns," made lively the leave-taking and echoed back from far down the road.
Then there was a night of tragedy during Steve's visit. The sleepers of the cabin were suddenly aroused by blood-curdling whoops and yells, gunshots, racing horses and running men. Everybody was instantly alert and the family turned out of the cabin en masse. It was thrilling. All knew well what it meant. The head of the house and older boys joined the fleeing crowd like dogs in a chase.
"That's Bud Levit's folks and the Cuneys done broke out agin 'bout that ole fuss, I bet," drawled the wife and mother, when the tumult had died down to faint echoes.
"I reckon thar'll be a big killin' this time," said one of the children with zest.
"Thar shore was a passle er folks and a pile er shootin'," said another enthusiastically.
"Now, you-alls git back to bed an' shet up," said the mother, and her brood gradually quieted down.
Next day when the man of the house and older boys returned about dark, full of whiskey and full of talk, a most exciting tale was unfolded to the eager listeners.
"Hit was the biggest killin' whut's been in these parts fur many er day," said the man with pride. "I'll tell ye when they did git together they fit lack beastes. When ev'ythin' was over thar was five on 'em a-layin' in their blood. Three of the Levits an' two of the Cuneys."
"Wal, I hope they'll keep quiet fer a spell now," commented the woman.
Then all the ghastly details were gone over with the children listening eagerly, drinking it in as they would a story of an exciting hunt. When the children discussed it afterwards one little fellow said to another: "I tell yer what, I'm er goin' ter be a fighter jes' lack them Levits. I'll shoot 'em down ef anybody comes foolin' round me."
Steve listened soberly. The experience was not a new one to him, but he remembered that his "Mammy" had always said she didn't like killings and that mountain folks ought to "larn better some way." The words came back to the boy with peculiar meaning since the voice which uttered them was still. He said nothing, but it all made him more anxious to move on towards that other world of which he and "Mammy" had dreamed.
The following morning his foot seeming fully restored and clearing weather having come after several days of rain, Steve said "he thought he'd move on."
"Whar ye goin'?" said the man of the house who had paid little attention to him before.
"I'm er goin' to the railroad fust, an' then from thar to the city to give the fox skin to the man, an' to larn things."
"Larn things," said the man scornfully, not being in the best of humour after the previous day's dissipation. "Huh! I s'pose ye'll be goin' to some er them city schools. Ye better go on back whar you come from. Schoolin' ain't no good ter anybody. Hit's them schools whut larns folks to go 'round pesterin' other folks, breakin' up 'stills.' Folks has got jest as good er right ter make whiskey es anything else," which showed in what he was especially interested.
Steve made no answer for the man was too forbidding in his irritability, but the boy kept to his determination to press on at once towards the railroad. After breakfast was over he went back to see the woman of the house, and in lazy kindness she said she wished she had a little bread and meat to give him but "there wan't none left," which Steve was quite prepared to hear, for there were many mouths to feed and never any left.
"I hope ye'll git thar all right. I reckons ye'll git somethin' to eat on the road, and ef ye're ever to come this-a-way agin come an' see us," she drawled as she smoked.
"Ye been mighty good ter me," said Steve, "an' I ain't nuver goin' ter forgit it."
He passed the children about the door-step, his fox skin under his arm, and they stood and watched him leave with a sort of sorrowful solemnity. Goodbyes are a thing unknown to mountain folk.
Then he walked off without much thought as to direction, having a definite impression, however, as to the way he should go, which was part instinct and partly remembrance of what the boy on the moving wagon had told him. The people he had left were too inert to think of giving him any instructions. But down the road he passed the big boys of the house sitting idly by the roadside. They had heard with satisfaction their father's opinion as to Steve's going in search of "larnin'." As Steve came in sight one of them nudged the other and said, "Less throw him off the scent."
"Which-a-way ye goin', Bub?" he asked when Steve came up.
Then for the first time Steve stopped and thought.
"Why, that-a-way," he replied pointing.
The big boys laughed boisterously. "Ye'll nuver git to no railroad goin' that-a-way. Thar's the way ye want ter go," said one, pointing off at a slightly different angle, which made the greatest difference in the boy's ultimate destination.
Steve looked doubtfully, but when he reflected a moment he remembered that he really did not know positively in what direction to go.
"Is that so?" he inquired looking earnestly at the boys.
"Hit shore is," returned both of them.
"How fur is it?" asked Steve.
"Oh, 'tain't fur," said one of the boys; "ye ought ter git thar before night easy. You go straight as a crow flies that-a-way," pointing as he had before, "and ye'll come to the railroad tracks. Ye can't miss hit fer ye're bound to cross 'em, an' ef ye go straight, lack I tell ye, ye'll be right at the station."
The boy on the moving wagon had described the railroad tracks to him, so Steve started off feeling reassured, and it never occurred to him that any one could be mean enough to misdirect him. It was a pity the echoes from the boisterous laughter of the boys when he was out of hearing could not have reached the little traveller's ears, but they did not, and Steve pressed on with good spirits feeling that he was almost in sight of his goal with less than a day's journey before him.
He turned at once from the road and went on and on, knowing as well as the crow how to keep straight with the compass, although like the crow he had never heard of one. The straight path took him quickly into the wilderness, but that did not dismay him as wilderness travel had become most familiar to him. At noon he began to feel so empty, he longed for just a little piece of corn bread. And then remembering that the mother thought he'd get something to eat on the road he began looking cheerfully for the smoke of a cabin somewhere. He had been vaguely disappointed at striking no road anywhere, but he had not asked the boys any particulars as to the route. Everything so far in his journeying had been unexpected, and the possibilities of routes were so totally unknown to him that he had started on again, as when he left home, unquestioning.
The empty stomach continued to cry loudly for food as the afternoon wore on, and no cabin smoke gave token of life anywhere. He did not suffer from thirst for mountain streams and springs were abundant. He pressed bravely forward, cheering himself with the thought that the boys had said he would come to the tracks before dark. But twilight began creeping in among the forest trees and still no tracks were in sight. Anxiously he listened for the terrible yet thrilling rush of a train which he remembered so well. He ought to be in hearing distance of them by now. But nothing broke the forest stillness save the twitter and song of birds, the scurrying of rabbits or frisking of squirrels with occasionally the sound of some larger animal in the underbrush.
Finally night fell with the poor boy straining his anxious eyes for the shining tracks of which he had heard. He forced his aching limbs along till suddenly, with a quivering sob, his strength seemed all to go and he sank upon the ground in a pitiful heap. He was too exhausted to think and in a few moments was sound asleep.
He lay upon the summit of a rugged mountain, which dropped precipitately down just beyond the sleeping boy, to ripple off again in lesser lofty heights, with beautiful fertile valleys and tossing streams between. A little, lonely, helpless human soul he lay upon Nature's majestic bosom, with the Infinite hand beneath his head.
In the morning when he waked billows of mist in silver splendour were rolling slowly from the valleys below, like Nature's incense rising in her sacred morning hour.
Although born in the mountains the mystic grandeur of the scene filled Steve with awe. Rising, he gazed, a part of the worshipful silence, and then as the sun burst suddenly into golden glory above the waves of mist, his mind as suddenly seemed to shoot up from the mists of fatigue and sleep. It was the peculiarly clear brain which sometimes comes with long abstinence from food. Instantly he knew that he had been fooled!
Turning to look back over the way he had come he said to himself: "Them boys told me wrong, an' they did hit a purpose. They're lack their pappy, they don't want to larn nothin' an' they don't want nobody else ter nuther."
A DOUBLE RESCUE
The boy stood quietly on the mountain top and took his bearings. He knew the way he had come, and remembering his previous impressions, and what his friend on the moving wagon had said, he turned at last and started down at an acute angle from the direction he had come. He gathered again as he went whatever he knew to be good to eat in the way of berries and herbs, but he soon began to feel so weary that he could hardly drag himself along. Had he gotten out of the wilderness only to plunge into it again and be lost? For as the day went on and he met no one, saw no cabin or the long-looked-for railroad tracks, discouragement and anxiety beset him. Noon passed again. Sometimes he thought he must stop and rest, but he was afraid if he did he could never get up again. His fatigue and hunger were far greater than in his previous experience in the wilderness, for he had never eaten heartily at the roadside cabin, knowing that food was not abundant there. So he was not in the best of trim for a long fast and great physical strain.
The remnants of his courage were wearing away when at last he seemed to be emerging into a more open country. He was still in the woods, but there was a subtle difference. He felt somehow that man was in proximity somewhere, though he had as yet seen no sign. His pulses quickened a little, and then suddenly a child's scream rang out.
Steve bounded forward at first with joy, and then as scream after scream followed, with the unmistakable agony of fear in the cry, forgetting his deadly weariness he ran swiftly in the direction of the sound, dropping the fox skin as he ran. In a breathless moment he came in sight of a good sized tree, and hanging from a high limb by the skirt of her dress was a little girl, head downward.
Steve saw in an instant that she could not help herself, and that she might fall to her death any moment. He did not pause or hesitate. Up the tree he went, his bare feet clinging to the sides, up and up in a twinkling, then he carefully crept out upon the limb and drew the little girl safely up beside him.
"Oh," she said when she had recovered her equilibrium and gotten her breath, "I thank you so much," and even then Steve was conscious that he had never seen anything so pretty in all his life as the blue eyes which looked up into his, and the soft yellow curls which framed her little face. But he hurried to get her down safely. With infinite care he helped her until she could go on down the tree alone, and then, he did not know what happened, but things suddenly seemed to whirl round and he fell to the ground in an unconscious heap.
The next he knew some one was wiping his face with a damp cloth and chafing his hands. He was too tired to open his eyes and see who it was. Then a woman's voice was saying in a worried but gentle tone:
"What were you doing in the tree, Nancy? You know I don't like for you to climb trees."
"Why, mother," replied a frightened little voice, "I found a poor little birdie out of its nest, and I pinned it up tight in my apron pocket and carried it up the tree and put it into the nest. The father and mother bird were so worried about it. I didn't know I was going to fall, and make this boy fall too, and hurt himself so bad," and the small voice broke pitifully.
"You never should have tried to do such a thing," said her mother firmly, and then as the little voice went into sobs, Steve opened his eyes in a brave effort to try to assure them he was all right.
"Oh, I'm so glad you are better," exclaimed the woman who knelt beside him.
She looked so kind and nice that Steve struggled to get up and further reassure her, but there seemed weights holding him down and a sharp pain thrust through and through his left arm.
"I am afraid you have broken your arm," said the woman anxiously. "Nancy, you run right over to the store and get your father," she said to the little girl. And Steve watched a white pinafore and flying yellow curls through a half-conscious dream mist, with a satisfied sense that he was at last in the new world of his visions.
And he was, for he had stumbled blindly through a bit of wood at the back of Mr. Follet's, the station-master's home, and just in time to rescue his little girl.
Mrs. Follet had heard the child's screams, for the tree was in the edge of the wood only a little way from the house, and she reached the place just after Steve had fallen to the ground, having seen the child's perilous position and Steve's rescue. She had dampened her handkerchief in a near-by spring and worked over the boy until consciousness returned.
The little white pinafore was soon running back with Mr. Follet walking rapidly.
"What under the canopee does all this mean?" he asked excitedly as he came up, although Nancy had told him about the accident. "Are you hurt much, boy?" he went on.
Steve heard what was said in a vague way, but he couldn't reply and Mrs. Follet explained that she didn't think the boy was fully conscious yet, and they would have to try to get him to the house.
So Mr. Follet, who was a small but very wiry man, soon had him up in his arms, while Mrs. Follet supported his head and together they carried him to the house and laid him down on a couch. Then Mrs. Follet quickly fixed him a hot drink and gave it slowly to him. With each swallow the sturdy boy felt stronger, and by the time he had taken a cup full, was able to talk freely.
"Where under the canopee did you come from anyway? You don't live hereabouts, do you?" asked Mr. Follet, who was of the restless, nervous temperament which must know things at once.
"Now, Pa," said Mrs. Follet, "you must get the doctor to set his arm before you ask him anything," and Mr. Follet started off.
Steve looked curiously at the arm hanging limply by his side. He had never seen a broken arm before though he had heard that arms and legs could break and be mended like hoe or ax handles.
By questioning, Mrs. Follet found that he had had nothing to eat since the day before, so she prepared him a dainty meal which filled the mountain boy with wonder. There was a poached egg, a bit of toast and a cup of hot milk, none of which had he ever tasted or seen prepared before. But it all was very, very good, and as he ate Nancy slipped shyly into the room. She had stayed outside in frightened misery, feeling that all the trouble was her fault. Her mother said kindly:
"That's right, child, come on in; our boy is better now." The little girl sat down timidly on the edge of a chair, and Steve took in the complete vision.
Soft yellow locks strayed out from a ribbon and tumbled about before a pair of deep blue eyes. Round cheeks were pink and soft, sweet lips were red and shyly smiling, a white apron with ruffles almost covered a blue gingham dress. The boy held his breath at the beauty of the apparition. He had never dreamed of anything so sweet and pretty in all the world.
It was not long before Mr. Follet returned with the doctor and the broken arm was successfully set, Steve bearing the pain "like a trump," as Mr. Follet put it. Then Mrs. Follet said he must go to bed at once, and he went up a tiny flight of stairs to a bed in a little attic chamber which she had made ready. Knowing the ways of mountain folk, Mrs. Follet did not insist that he undress, as the task would be difficult for him with the broken arm. He slept soundly in spite of pain in the arm upon a remarkable bed "off the floor" and awoke feeling well, and eager to see again his new friends.
When he got down the stairs, Mrs. Follet was busy getting the breakfast, and Mr. Follet was ready with questions.
"Where under the canopee (which was a favourite expression with Mr. Follet) did you drap from yesterday, just in time to save our Nancy? You don't live hereabouts, do you?"
"No," said Steve, "I come from Hollow Hut."
"And where's that?" returned Mr. Follet.
Steve couldn't tell very clearly, but gave an account of his long journey and told about the watch and the fox skin which he was going to take to the man in the city.
Mr. and Mrs. Follet were much interested in his story, so much so that they forgot the waiting breakfast. Then they turned to it, but Steve had remembered that he dropped his fox skin as he ran to Nancy's rescue and he wanted to go at once for it, but Mrs. Follet would not let him go till he had eaten breakfast. The neatly laid table with its snowy cloth was a new wonder to Steve, and when the little girl, looking fresh and sweet as a rose, sat down opposite him, he was so awed and thrilled he could scarcely eat. Angels could hardly have given him a more heavenly vision than did this little girl.
Breakfast over, Steve started at once for the fox skin, and Mrs. Follet sent Nancy with him to help find it. The little girl lost some of her shyness as they looked for the skin, and Steve listened to her chatter, feeling in a strange way that it was all a dream which he had had before, as we do sometimes in experiences which move us strongly.
They found the skin with little trouble, and when they had carried it back to the house, Mr. Follet took it up and carefully examined it.
"So you're trying to get this here skin to the man in the city who sent the watch to you?"
"Yes," said Steve.
"And you ain't got hair or hide o' the watch now?" continued Mr. Follet.
"No, I hain't," said the boy sorrowfully.
"Well, I'll be sniggered," said Mr. Follet. "And how under the canopee do you expect to find him in the city when you git thar?"
The boy's uncomprehending stare showed that he had no conception of a city, and Mr. Follet looked at his wife, laughed and went over to the station, which was station and store combined.
For a few days Steve continued to live in a dream. The house was a marvel to him. Mrs. Follet cooked on a stove and constantly fixed strange, nice things to eat; a clock ticked on the mantel, which comforted him somewhat for the loss of his watch,—there were queer but to him surprisingly beautiful and comfortable pieces of furniture, and one room had a nice piece of good stout cloth with red and green flowers on it spread over the floor on which people walked!
Then marvel of marvels, every now and then that engine and great train of cars came puffing and hissing by the house in full view, and the boy's spirits mounted on wings as he thought of the wonders of the world.
Even with one arm disabled, he took hold at once to help with the work about the place. He fed the chickens, horse and cow. With only one hand he could not learn to milk, though he was eager to do so. He went over to the store on errands and made himself useful in many ways.
One day when at the store he said to Mr. Follet that as soon as his arm was well he would have to be going on to the city to take the fox skin.
"And how under the canopee do you expect to be ridin' round on the railroad without money?" said Mr. Follet. He knew well the boy had none. "You ain't a Rockefeller or a Jay Gould, air you?"
These allusions of course meant nothing to the boy, and the question of money was a new one to him. None of his late friends in their simplicity had thought of it, and the man had to make clear the need of it in the business world which Steve had come into. With his people things had always been "swapped"; corn, tobacco and whiskey, for the few things they needed from a store, and he had seen very few pieces of money in his life.
"Now, how under the canopee are you going to come up with the money?" asked Mr. Follet briskly, and with practical pertinence.
Steve certainly did not know and then Mr. Follet proposed that he stay with them through the summer, work for him and he would give him his board and clothes and pay him fifty cents a week.
Steve agreed readily and at once felt a new sense of responsibility and manliness.
When his arm was quite well Mrs. Follet gave him some long white garments which she called "nightshirts," and told him to undress at night and wear them for sleeping! It was a very needless performance, he felt in his secret heart, but he had already learned to love the gentle woman and he would have done even more foolish things to please her. In fact, the thing which she gave him for brushing his hair seemed at first to bring him to the limit of acquiescence, but the bit of broken looking-glass stuck in one of the timbers of his room soon told him that a little smoothing down of his tousled head made an immense difference in his looks, and somehow made him seem a little more worthy to be in Nancy's presence.
The little girl had lessons at night from her mother in wonderful books, and Steve listened with rapt attention each time, beginning very soon to catch their meaning. It was not long till he had confided to Nancy how his "mammy" had wanted him to "larn things" too, and that was another reason why he was trying to get to the city.
"You're going to school then," said the little girl. "My mama teaches me, and some day she is going to send me to a big, big college."
Mrs. Follet had been a school-teacher from the north in one of the small Kentucky towns, an orphan girl, who very young had been obliged to make her own way in the world. She had met Mr. Follet, and in one of those strange attractions between complete opposites in temperament and training, had married him. She was a quiet, refined and very kind-hearted woman. She would gladly have taught the boy, but finding that he did not know even his letters, she felt that with Nancy in the second reader, she could not take another pupil who was a beginner.
But when the lessons were going on in the evening Steve soon began to spell over the words to himself as Nancy spelled them, and then it came about that often at odd times the brown shock of hair and the little yellow curls bent together over bits of paper, as the little girl pointed out and explained the make-up of the letters to the big boy.
"Don't you see, Steve, this little chicken coop with a piece across it is big A, and this one with the piece standing up and two curly things at the side is big B." The peculiarities of similar letters were discussed, how the bottom curly thing in big R turned the other way, while P didn't have any bottom curly thing at all, and F didn't have any bottom cross piece, while E did.
"See here," said Steve, growing alert, "here's a powerful nice gate; whut's that?"
"Oh, that's big H," said Nancy, "and wriggly, twisty S is just the prettiest letter of all, I think. Oh, Steve, that is the letter which begins your name," said she, in generous, childish joy.
"Is that so?" exclaimed Steve, with eager pleasure because she was pleased. "And which is the one whut begins yourn?"
"Oh, mine is just two straight standing up pieces with a slanting piece between. It's one kind of a gate but not just like H," and she hunted out an N to show him.
"I think that's the prettiest letter of all," said Steve, with unconscious gallantry. "Whar's the other letters in yo' name?" he inquired, and Nancy hunted them all out. Then she found the other letters in his name, and Steve had an undefined disappointment that his name did not have a single letter in it which belonged to her name. It seemed to shut him out more completely from the things which belonged to her.
So the lessons went on from the little girl to the big boy, and Mrs. Follet was amazed one day to find that Steve could read quite well. He studied every book and paper within reach as he found time, though he never neglected his duties.
Corn was constantly brought Mr. Follet in exchange for goods at the store, and one of Steve's duties was to take the old horse with two big bags of corn over to the Greely mill to be ground into meal. Nancy was mounted upon the old horse in front of the bags to show Steve the way on his first trip, and afterwards she always begged to go. To Steve it was the greatest joy to take the little girl with him, though he wouldn't have dared ask it. He taught her to put her small foot in his hand while he sturdily lifted her to the old white mare's back, and on the return she stepped down into his palm with equal ease.
The way to the mill lay along the road for a time, and then a short cut was made across what was known as the Greely Ridge. It was a steep cliff of rugged woodland, and both Nancy and Steve enjoyed the trip through the woods, Steve walking close beside the horse and the two chatting all the way. He told the little girl such interesting things about birds and squirrels, rabbits and foxes.
"Don't you wish we were birds," said Nancy one day, "so we could fly way off and see lots of things?"
"Yes," said Steve, "I shore do; then I could find Mr. Polk and give him his fox skin." The thought of getting to Mr. Polk was always in his mind, and though the little girl knew all about it she wanted to hear again how Steve got the skin and about that wonderful day in the woods when he met Mr. Polk, and the beautiful watch that the robbers took.
"When you find Mr. Polk and learn to make watches and things, like your mother wanted you to, you will make one just like yours for me, won't you, Steve?"
"Yes, I shore will," said Steve earnestly, never doubting that he would keep his promise.
There was nothing Steve would not attempt for her pleasure. He went to the tops of trees after some vacant bird nest or hanging flower, he chased rabbits and hunted squirrels that she might get a glimpse of them.
"Some day, Steve," said Nancy innocently, "let's build us a house and live here always; we do have such good times when we come to this wood."
Steve replied again, "Yes, I shore will," and neither dreamed what the wood was hiding for them to be revealed, far out in the veiled future.
When they reached the mill, Mr. and Mrs. Greely were always so glad to see them. They had no children of their own and they liked the straightforward, dependable boy, while the little girl with her sweet, shy ways, was always a delight. Mrs. Greely would often stop her spinning to get a little treat for them, which they would eat while the corn was being ground, and going to mill came to make four people happy each trip.
AN UNEXPECTED MEETING
Mr. Follet was a man of unique business methods. He had no idea of orderliness, though he insisted he knew where everything was, and strenuously declined his wife's offers to go over to the store, or stores rather, and help him "straighten up." The stock had overflowed the floor of the original building and instead of putting in shelves to dispose of the stock conveniently, he built another and still another shanty to hold the overflow. But in spite of queer methods he was making money steadily. He kept each building securely locked, for he said he wouldn't have idle folks sitting around in his store. He went over to the station according to the railroad time schedule, though it was only a flag station and was seldom flagged, and whenever he saw a customer at the store door or on the way, he bustled over to unlock the door, stumble around in the dark, for there were no windows, and hunt out what they wanted.
Bacon, molasses, dress-goods, coffins and farm implements were on close terms of intimacy and whatever was wanted Mr. Follet could produce with amazing promptness.
Such methods, however, consumed a great deal of time on the path between his home and the store, and Steve filled an urgent need of the combined establishment.
One morning at breakfast in early autumn Mr. Follet was in a great flutter of excitement. A travelling auditor of the railroad was to be there for the day looking over his accounts and this not frequent event was a sore trial to both the station-master and the auditor. Each time Mr. Follet said to him nervously: "Now, you know I can't keep things like the road tells me to, and if things don't just come out even I'll make up whatever's lacking."
When the auditor, a big, broad-shouldered, kindly-faced gentleman arrived on this particular morning, and was seated for work, Mr. Follet made his usual statement.
"All right, Mr. Follet, all right," said the genial auditor, "we know you are straight as a string. Are you sure you've got all the ticket stubs?" he continued as Mr. Follet brought out some bits of pasteboard from a big bushel basket.
"Oh, yes, I'm sure," said Mr. Follet. "I don't let nobody in here but myself and so nothing is out of place." Then thinking a minute, he said, "Well now I do believe I stuck a few stubs in this tin pail." He looked, and sure enough there were a few more.
"And the bills of lading," said the auditor, "are these all?"
Mr. Follet pondered a moment and then brightening, exclaimed: "Why no, I stuck a few of them in one of these here coffins one day for safe keeping," and he stepped over to a grim pine coffin keeping company with a pile of gay bandanas, and brought forth another bunch of bills. But his foot caught in a coil of barbed wire as he started over to the auditor with them and it was at that moment that Steve came to the station door to get something and Mr. Follet called out, "Here, Steve, hand these over to the gentleman." The boy started to obey, but when he turned and faced the auditor he stood rooted to the floor, his face white and eyes staring.
"What ails you?" said Mr. Follet sharply, noticing him. The auditor looked quickly up also, and the boy found his voice.
"Samuel Polk," he said slowly.
The auditor smiled, and replied pleasantly, "That's my name, son, and where did you ever know me?"
"Ye sent me the watch," said the boy.
"Is that so!" exclaimed Mr. Polk. "So you are the boy I met in the woods! Well, this is marvellous, sure, that we should meet here. How did you ever get so far away from Hollow Hut?" he went on smiling.
The boy told him briefly, while Mr. Follet listened with lively interest. When the pitiful tale of the loss of the watch was told, Steve added sturdily:
"But I got yer fox skin in spite of 'em, an' I've been a-workin' to git to the city to give it ter ye."
"Working to take the skin to me when you have no watch," said the auditor, gently.
"Course," said the boy; "hit was yourn jes' the same," and the auditor reached out and drew the boy to him tenderly, thinking of all the hardship he had borne in the effort to be square and honest.
"You are the boy for me," he said with a glimmer in his eyes that made Steve feel queer, and he broke away, saying, "I'll go and brung ye the skin."
He was back as quickly as his sturdy legs could bring him, and laid the fox skin on Mr. Polk's knee. It was gravely accepted and admired, and then Steve returned to his work with all the earnestness he could summon after the excitement of this unexpected meeting.
When Mr. Follet and Mr. Polk came over to dinner the acquaintance of the two who had met that November day in the mountains was continued and Mr. Polk was greatly pleased to find that the boy was already "larnin'," and astonished at the progress which had been made during the summer. On the way back to the store he said to Mr. Follet:
"I've taken a great fancy to that boy; he ought to have a good education. I am all alone in the world and no good to anybody. If it's all square with you, I'll take that boy to the city with me this afternoon when I leave at four-thirty and put him in school somewhere."
Mr. Follet was amazed and he hated to give up the boy who had become so useful, but after a moment's thought, he said:
"I don't see as I have anything to say about it. He just stopped here on his way to you, and you've come to him. You'll have to take him if you want him, though I don't see how under the canopee we'll get along without him now."
"That is just like you, Follet, straight always," said the other warmly, and after a little the station-master went back to take the news to Steve. It startled them all and Mrs. Follet expressed her great regret in seeing the boy go, but she put his few little belongings in good order and prepared him to start off "clean and whole," as she expressed it. Nancy looked on wide-eyed, and Steve got ready like one in a dream. He wrapped his small bundle of clothes in the fox skin, which Mr. Polk had asked him to take care of, and went over to the station.
At four-thirty the train rushed up. Mr. Polk led Steve into a beautiful plush-seated car and placed the boy where he could have a last look at his friends, for Mr. and Mrs. Follet and Nancy stood on the platform.
It was Nancy who held his eyes till the last moment, little Nancy with two big tears dropping down her cheeks. Steve's throat ached unaccountably.
A TRIP TO THE CITY
"Here we are," said Mr. Polk, as the train thundered into the station at Louisville. The ride of four hours had been a continued kaleidoscopic delight. Steve could not understand how it was that trees and houses went racing by the car windows and Mr. Polk had rare enjoyment in the boy's unsophisticated inquiry and comment.
Bringing this boy into the city was like giving sudden sight to a child who had lived its life in blindness. With keenest pleasure, Mr. Polk took him into a brilliantly lighted restaurant for supper and then afterwards up town by trolley into a large furnishing establishment, for it was Saturday night and the stores were open. There he fitted the little fellow out from top to toe according to his liking, the outfit including a shining German silver watch! The two attracted attention everywhere, the boy's face a study in its swiftly changing expression and the man full of eager interest which he could not curb.
When Steve was all dressed and stood before a mirror, Mr. Polk exclaimed:
"Now, that is something like!" And the boy turning from the transformed vision of himself, lifted a quivering face to his benefactor.
There was a delicately sensitive side to the nature of this boy of the woods. To him this experience was not simply getting new, fine clothes, but his old familiar self seemed to go with the old clothes, and like the chrysalis emerging into the butterfly, he could not pass into the new life, which the new type of clothes represented, without having his joy touched with the pain of travail.
With the tenderness of a woman Mr. Polk put his arm about the little fellow in quick contrition, knowing that it had been too much for this habitant of the quiet woods, and said in a most matter-of-fact way: "Now, son, for home and bed," and in a few minutes more the boy was snugly tucked in bed in Mr. Polk's comfortable bachelor quarters, and the next morning when he woke he was a new boy inwardly as well as outwardly.
He was ready for new "thrills" and they came. After a very astonishing breakfast he went with Mr. Polk to church. The beautiful building and wonderfully dressed people held his wide-eyed interest, but when the deep-toned organ poured forth its solemn melody, big tears dropped down the boy's face and Mr. Polk drew him within a protecting arm. It was like touching the quivering chords of a little bared soul with new, strange harmonies, and the sensitive heart of the man understood intuitively the boy's mingled joy and pain.
In the afternoon Mr. Polk took his charge to the home of a friend to see about schools, as his friend had a boy about the same age, and also to get help as to the general problem of caring for his protege.