THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS
BY HAROLD BELL WRIGHT
TO FRANCES, MY WIFE
IN MEMORY OF THAT BEAUTIFUL SUMMER IN THE OZARK HILLS, WHEN, SO OFTEN, WE FOLLOWED THE OLD TRAIL AROUND THE RISE OF MUTTON HOLLOW—THE TRAIL THAT IS NOBODY KNOWS HOW OLD—AND FROM SAMMY'S LOOKOUT WATCHED THE DAY GO OVER THE WESTERN RIDGES.
"That all with one consent praise new-born gawds, Tho they are made and moulded of things past, And give to dust that is a little gilt More laud than gilt o'er-dusted."
TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. ACT 3; SC. 3.
It was corn-planting time, when the stranger followed the Old Trail into the Mutton Hollow neighborhood.
All day a fine rain had fallen steadily, and the mists hung heavy over the valley. The lower hills were wrapped as in a winding sheet; dank and cold. The trees were dripping with moisture. The stranger looked tired and wet.
By his dress, the man was from the world beyond the ridges, and his carefully tailored clothing looked strangely out of place in the mountain wilderness. His form stooped a little in the shoulders, perhaps with weariness, but he carried himself with the unconscious air of one long used to a position of conspicuous power and influence; and, while his well-kept hair and beard were strongly touched with white, the brown, clear lighted eyes, that looked from under their shaggy brows, told of an intellect unclouded by the shadows of many years. It was a face marked deeply by pride; pride of birth, of intellect, of culture; the face of a scholar and poet; but it was more—it was the countenance of one fairly staggering under a burden of disappointment and grief.
As the stranger walked, he looked searchingly into the mists on every hand, and paused frequently as if questioning the proper course. Suddenly he stepped quickly forward. His ear had caught the sharp ring of a horse's shoe on a flint rock somewhere in the mists on the mountain side above. It was Jed Holland coming down the trail with a week's supply of corn meal in a sack across his horse's back.
As the figure of the traveler emerged from the mists, the native checked his horse to greet the newcomer with the customary salutation of the backwoods, "Howdy."
The man returned Jed's greeting cordially, and, resting his satchel on a rock beside the narrow path, added, "I am very glad to meet you. I fear that I am lost."
The voice was marvelously pure, deep, and musical, and, like the brown eyes, betrayed the real strength of the man, denied by his gray hair and bent form. The tones were as different from the high keyed, slurring speech of the backwoods, as the gentleman himself was unlike any man Jed had ever met. The boy looked at the speaker in wide-eyed wonder; he had a queer feeling that he was in the presence of a superior being.
Throwing one thin leg over the old mare's neck, and waving a long arm up the hill and to the left, Jed drawled, "That thar's Dewey Bal'; down yonder's Mutton Holler." Then turning a little to the right and pointing into the mist with the other hand, he continued, "Compton Ridge is over thar. Whar was you tryin' to git to, Mister?"
"Where am I trying to get to?" As the man repeated Jed's question, he drew his hand wearily across his brow; "I—I—it doesn't much matter, boy. I suppose I must find some place where I can stay to- night. Do you live near here?"
"Nope," Jed answered, "Hit's a right smart piece to whar I live. This here's grindin' day, an' I've been t' mill over on Fall Creek; the Matthews mill hit is. Hit'll be plumb dark 'gin I git home. I 'lowed you was a stranger in these parts soon 's I ketched sight of you. What might YER name be, Mister?"
The other, looking back over the way he had come, seemed not to hear Jed's question, and the native continued, "Mine's Holland. Pap an' Mam they come from Tennessee. Pap he's down in th' back now, an' ain't right peart, but he'll be 'round in a little, I reckon. Preachin' Bill he 'lows hit's good fer a feller t' be down in th' back onct in a while; says if hit warn't fer that we'd git to standin' so durned proud an' straight we'd go plumb over backwards."
A bitter smile crossed the face of the older man. He evidently applied the native's philosophy in a way unguessed by Jed. "Very true, very true, indeed," he mused. Then he turned to Jed, and asked, "Is there a house near here?"
"Jim Lane lives up the trail 'bout half a quarter. Ever hear tell o' Jim?"
"No, I have never been in these mountains before."
"I 'lowed maybe you'd heard tell o' Jim or Sammy. There's them that 'lows Jim knows a heap more 'bout old man Dewey's cave than he lets on; his place bein' so nigh. Reckon you know 'bout Colonel Dewey, him th' Bal' up thar's named fer? Maybe you come t' look fer the big mine they say's in th' cave? I'll hep you hunt hit, if you want me to, Mister."
"No," said the other, "I am not looking for mines of lead or zinc; there is greater wealth in these hills and forests, young man."
"Law, you don't say! Jim Wilson allus 'lowed thar must be gold in these here mountains, 'cause they're so dad burned rough. Lemme hep you, Mister. I'd like mighty well t' git some clothes like them."
"I do not speak of gold, my boy," the stranger answered kindly. "But I must not keep you longer, or darkness will overtake us. Do you think this Mr. Lane would entertain me?"
Jed pushed a hand up under his tattered old hat, and scratched awhile before he answered, "Don't know 'bout th' entertainin', Mister, but 'most anybody would take you in." He turned and looked thoughtfully up the trail. "I don't guess Jim's to home though; 'cause I see'd Sammy a fixin' t' go over t' th' Matthews's when I come past. You know the Matthews's, I reckon?"
There was a hint of impatience now in the deep voice. "No, I told you that I had never been in these mountains before. Will Mr. Matthews keep me, do you think?"
Jed, who was still looking up the trail, suddenly leaned forward, and, pointing into the timber to the left of the path, said in an exciting whisper, "Look at that, Mister; yonder thar by that big rock."
The stranger, looking, thought he saw a form, weird and ghost-like in the mist, flitting from tree to tree, but, even as he looked, it vanished among the hundreds of fantastic shapes in the gray forest. "What is it?" he asked.
The native shook his head. "Durned if I know, Mister. You can't tell. There's mighty strange things stirrin' on this here mountain, an' in the Holler down yonder. Say, Mister, did you ever see a hant?"
The gentleman did not understand.
"A hant, a ghost, some calls 'em," explained Jed. "Bud Wilson he sure seed old Matt's—"
The other interrupted. "Really, young man, I must go. It is already late, and you know I have yet to find a place to stay for the night."
"Law, that's alright, Mister!" replied Jed. "Ain't no call t' worry. Stay anywhere. Whar do you live when you're to home?"
Again Jed's question was ignored. "You think then that Mr. Matthews will keep me?"
"Law, yes! They'll take anybody in. I know they're to home 'cause they was a fixin' t' leave the mill when I left 'bout an hour ago. Was the river up much when you come acrost?" As the native spoke he was still peering uneasily into the woods.
"I did not cross the river. How far is it to this Matthews place, and how do I go?"
"Jest foller this Old Trail. Hit'll take you right thar. Good road all th' way. 'Bout three mile, I'd say. Did you come from Springfield or St. Louis, maybe?"
The man lifted his satchel from the rock as he answered: "No, I do not live in either Springfield or St. Louis. Thank you, very much, for your assistance. I will go on, now, for I must hurry, or night will overtake me, and I shall not be able to find the path."
"Oh, hit's a heap lighter when you git up on th' hill 'bove th' fog," said Jed, lowering his leg from the horse's neck, and settling the meal sack, preparatory to moving. "But I'd a heap rather hit was you than me a goin' up on Dewey t'night." He was still looking up the trail. "Reckon you must be from Kansas City or Chicago? I heard tell they're mighty big towns."
The stranger's only answer was a curt "Good-by," as his form vanished in the mist.
Jed turned and dug his heels vigorously in the old mare's flanks, as he ejaculated softly, "Well, I'll be dod durned! Must be from New York, sure!"
Slowly the old man toiled up the mountain; up from the mists of the lower ground to the ridge above; and, as he climbed, unseen by him, a shadowy form flitted from tree to tree in the dim, dripping forest.
As the stranger came in sight of the Lane cabin, a young woman on a brown pony rode out of the gate and up the trail before him; and when the man reached the open ground on the mountain above, and rounded the shoulder of the hill, he saw the pony, far ahead, loping easily along the little path. A moment he watched, and horse and rider passed from sight.
The clouds were drifting far away. The western sky was clear with the sun still above the hills. In an old tree that leaned far out over the valley, a crow shook the wet from his plumage and dried himself in the warm light; while far below the mists rolled, and on the surface of that gray sea, the traveler saw a company of buzzards, wheeling and circling above some dead thing hidden in its depth.
Wearily the man followed the Old Trail toward the Matthews place, and always, as he went, in the edge of the gloomy forest, flitted that shadowy form.
Preachin' Bill, says, "Hit's a plumb shame there ain't more men in th' world built like old man Matthews and that thar boy o' his'n. Men like them ought t' be as common as th' other kind, an' would be too if folks cared half as much 'bout breeding folks as they do 'bout raising hogs an' horses."
Mr. Matthews was a giant. Fully six feet four inches in height, with big bones, broad shoulders, and mighty muscles. At log rollings and chopping bees, in the field or at the mill, or in any of the games in which the backwoodsman tries his strength, no one had ever successfully contested his place as the strongest man in the hills. And still, throughout the country side, the old folks tell with pride tales of the marvelous feats of strength performed in the days when "Old Matt" was young.
Of the son, "Young Matt," the people called him, it is enough to say that he seemed made of the same metal and cast in the same mold as the father; a mighty frame, softened yet by young manhood's grace; a powerful neck and well poised head with wavy red-brown hair; and blue eyes that had in them the calm of summer skies or the glint of battle steel. It was a countenance fearless and frank, but gentle and kind, and the eyes were honest eyes.
Anyone meeting the pair, as they walked with the long swinging stride of the mountaineer up the steep mill road that gray afternoon, would have turned for a second look; such men are seldom seen.
When they reached the big log house that looks down upon the Hollow, the boy went at once with his axe to the woodpile, while the older man busied himself with the milking and other chores about the barn.
Young Matt had not been chopping long when he heard, coming up the hill, the sound of a horse's feet on the Old Trail. The horse stopped at the house and a voice, that stirred the blood in the young man's veins, called, "Howdy, Aunt Mollie."
Mrs. Matthews appeared in the doorway; by her frank countenance and kindly look anyone would have known her at a glance as the boy's mother. "Land sakes, if it ain't Sammy Lane! How are you, honey?"
"I am alright," answered the voice; "I've come over t' stop with you to-night; Dad's away again; Mandy Ford staid with me last night, but she had to go home this evenin'." The big fellow at the woodpile drove his axe deeper into the log.
"It's about time you was a comin' over," replied the woman in the doorway; "I was a tellin' the menfolks this mornin' that you hadn't been nigh the whole blessed week. Mr. Matthews 'lowed maybe you was sick."
The other returned with a gay laugh, "I was never sick a minute in my life that anybody ever heard tell. I'm powerful hungry, though. You'd better put in another pan of corn bread." She turned her pony's head toward the barn.
"Seems like you are always hungry," laughed the older woman, in return. "Well just go on out to the barn, and the men will take your horse; then come right in and I'll mighty soon have something to fill you up."
Operations at the woodpile suddenly ceased and Young Matt was first at the barn-yard gate.
Miss Sammy Lane was one of those rare young women whose appearance is not to be described. One can, of course, put it down that she was tall; beautifully tall, with the trimness of a young pine, deep bosomed, with limbs full-rounded, fairly tingling with the life and strength of perfect womanhood; and it may be said that her face was a face to go with one through the years, and to live still in one's dreams when the sap of life is gone, and, withered and old, one sits shaking before the fire; a generous, loving mouth, red lipped, full arched, with the corners tucked in and perfect teeth between; a womanly chin and nose, with character enough to save them from being pretty; hair dark, showing a touch of gold with umber in the shadows; a brow, full broad, set over brown eyes that had never been taught to hide behind their fringed veils, but looked always square out at you with a healthy look of good comradeship, a gleam of mirth, or a sudden, wide, questioning gaze that revealed depth of soul within.
But what is the use? When all this is written, those who knew Sammy will say, "'Tis but a poor picture, for she is something more than all this." Uncle Ike, the postmaster at the Forks, did it much better when he said to "Preachin' Bill," the night of the "Doin's" at the Cove School, "Ba thundas! That gal o' Jim Lane's jest plumb fills th' whole house. WHAT! An' when she comes a ridin' up t' th' office on that brown pony o' hern, I'll be dad burned if she don't pretty nigh fill th' whole out doors, ba thundas! What!" And the little shrivelled up old hillsman, who keeps the ferry, removed his cob pipe long enough to reply, with all the emphasis possible to his squeaky voice, "She sure do, Ike. She sure do. I've often thought hit didn't look jest fair fer God 'lmighty t' make sech a woman 'thout ary man t' match her. Makes me feel plumb 'shamed o' myself t' stand 'round in th' same county with her. Hit sure do, Ike."
Greeting the girl the young man opened the gate for her to pass.
"I've been a lookin' for you over," said Sammy, a teasing light in her eyes. "Didn't you know that Mandy was stoppin' with me? She's been a dyin' to see you."
"I'm mighty sorry," he replied, fastening the gate and coming to the pony's side. "Why didn't you tell me before? I reckon she'll get over it alright, though," he added with a smile, as he raised his arms to assist the girl to dismount.
The teasing light vanished as the young woman placed her hands on the powerful shoulders of the giant, and as she felt the play of the swelling muscles that swung her to the ground so easily, her face flushed with admiration. For the fraction of a minute she stood facing him, her hands still on his arms, her lips parted as if to speak; then she turned quickly away, and without a word walked toward the house, while the boy, pretending to busy himself with the pony's bridle, watched her as she went.
When the girl was gone, the big fellow led the horse away to the stable, where he crossed his arms upon the saddle and hid his face from the light. Mr. Matthews coming quietly to the door a few minutes later saw the boy standing there, and the rugged face of the big mountaineer softened at the sight. Quietly he withdrew to the other side of the barn, to return later when the saddle and bridle had been removed, and the young man stood stroking the pony, as the little horse munched his generous feed of corn.
The elder man laid his hand on the broad shoulder of the lad so like him, and looked full into the clear eyes. "Is it alright, son?" he asked gruffly; and the boy answered, as he returned his father's look, "It's alright, Dad."
"Then let's go to the house; Mother called supper some time ago."
Just as the little company were seating themselves at the table, the dog in the yard barked loudly. Young Matt went to the door. The stranger, whom Jed had met on the Old Trail, stood at the gate.
THE VOICE FROM OUT THE MISTS.
While Young Matt was gone to the corral in the valley to see that the sheep were safely folded for the night, and the two women were busy in the house with their after-supper work, Mr. Matthews and his guest sat on the front porch.
"My name is Howitt, Daniel Howitt," the man said in answer to the host's question. But, as he spoke, there was in his manner a touch of embarrassment, and he continued quickly as if to prevent further question, "You have two remarkable children, sir; that boy is the finest specimen of manhood I have ever seen, and the girl is remarkable—remarkable, sir. You will pardon me, I am sure, but I am an enthusiastic lover of my kind, and I certainly have never seen such a pair."
The grim face of the elder Matthews showed both pleasure and amusement. "You're mistaken, Mister; the boy's mine alright, an' he's all that you say, an' more, I reckon. I doubt if there's a man in the hills can match him to-day; not excepting Wash Gibbs; an' he's a mighty good boy, too. But the girl is a daughter of a neighbor, and no kin at all."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the other, "you have only one child then?"
The amused smile left the face of the old mountaineer, as he answered slowly, "There was six boys, sir; this one, Grant, is the youngest. The others lie over there." He pointed with his pipe to where a clump of pines, not far from the house, showed dark and tall, against the last red glow in the sky.
The stranger glanced at the big man's face in quick sympathy. "I had only two; a boy and a girl," he said softly. "The girl and her mother have been gone these twenty years. The boy grew to be a man, and now he has left me." The deep voice faltered. "Pardon me, sir, for speaking of this, but my lad was so like your boy there. He was all I had, and now—now—I am very lonely, sir."
There is a bond of fellowship in sorrow that knows no conventionalities. As the two men sat in the hush of the coming night, their faces turned toward the somber group of trees, they felt strongly drawn to one another.
The mountaineer's companion spoke again half to himself; "I wish that my dear ones had a resting place like that. In the crowded city cemetery the ground is always shaken by the tramping of funeral professions." He buried his face in his hands.
For some time the stranger sat thus, while his host spoke no word. Then lifting his head, the man looked away over the ridges just touched with the lingering light, and the valley below wrapped in the shadowy mists. "I came away from it all because they said I must, and because I was hungry for this." He waved his hand toward the glowing sky and the forest clad hills. "This is good for me; it somehow seems to help me know how big God is. One could find peace here—surely, sir, one could find it here—peace and strength."
The mountaineer puffed hard at his pipe for a while, then said gruffly, "Seems that way, Mister, to them that don't know. But many's the time I've wished to God I'd never seen these here Ozarks. I used to feel like you do, but I can't no more. They 'mind me now of him that blackened my life; he used to take on powerful about the beauty of the country and all the time he was a turnin' it into a hell for them that had to stay here after he was gone."
As he spoke, anger and hatred grew dark in the giant's face, and the stranger saw the big hands clench and the huge frame grow tense with passion. Then, as if striving to be not ungracious, the woodsman said in a somewhat softer tone, "You can't see much of it, this evening, though, 'count of the mists. It'll fair up by morning, I reckon. You can see a long way from here, of a clear day, Mister."
"Yes, indeed," replied Mr. Howitt, in an odd tone. "One could see far from here, I am sure. We, who live in the cities, see but a little farther than across the street. We spend our days looking at the work of our own and our neighbors' hands. Small wonder our lives have so little of God in them, when we come in touch with so little that God has made."
"You live in the city, then, when you are at home?" asked Mr. Matthews, looking curiously at his guest.
"I did, when I had a home; I cannot say that I live anywhere now."
Old Matt leaned forward in his chair as if to speak again; then paused; someone was coming up the hill; and soon they distinguished the stalwart form of the son. Sammy coming from the house with an empty bucket met the young man at the gate, and the two went toward the spring together.
In silence the men on the porch watched the moon as she slowly pushed her way up through the leafy screen on the mountain wall. Higher and higher she climbed until her rays fell into the valley below, and the drifting mists from ridge to ridge became a sea of ghostly light. It was a weird scene, almost supernatural in its beauty.
Then from down at the spring a young girl's laugh rose clearly, and the big mountaineer said in a low tone, "Mr. Howitt, you've got education; it's easy to see that; I've always wanted to ask somebody like you, do you believe in hants? Do you reckon folks ever come back once they're dead and gone?"
The man from the city saw that his big host was terribly in earnest, and answered quietly, "No, I do not believe in such things, Mr. Matthews; but if it should be true, I do not see why we should fear the dead."
The other shook his head; "I don't know—I don't know, sir; I always said I didn't believe, but some things is mighty queer." He seemed to be shaping his thought for further speech, when again the girl's laugh rang clear along the mountain side. The young people were returning from the spring.
The mountaineer relighted his pipe, while Young Matt and Sammy seated themselves on the step, and Mrs. Matthews coming from the house joined the group.
"We've just naturally got to find somebody to stay with them sheep, Dad," said the son; "there ain't nobody there to-night, and as near as I can make out there's three ewes and their lambs missing. There ain't a bit of use in us trying to depend on Pete."
"I'll ride over on Bear Creek to-morrow, and see if I can get that fellow Buck told us about," returned the father.
"You find it hard to get help on the ranch?" inquired the stranger.
"Yes, sir, we do," answered Old Matt. "We had a good 'nough man 'till about a month ago; since then we've been gettin' along the best we could. But with some a stayin' out on the range, an' not comin' in, an' the wolves a gettin' into the corral at night, we'll lose mighty nigh all the profits this year. The worst of it is, there ain't much show to get a man; unless that one over on Bear Creek will come. I reckon, though, he'll be like the rest." He sat staring gloomily into the night.
"Is the work so difficult?" Mr. Howitt asked.
"Difficult, no; there ain't nothing to do but tendin' to the sheep. The man has to stay at the ranch of nights, though."
Mr. Howitt was wondering what staying at the ranch nights could have to do with the difficulty, when, up from the valley below, from out the darkness and the mists, came a strange sound; a sound as if someone were singing a song without words. So wild and weird was the melody; so passionately sweet the voice, it seemed impossible that the music should come from human lips. It was more as though some genie of the forest-clad hills wandered through the mists, singing as he went with the joy of his possessions.
Mrs. Matthews came close to her husband's side, and placed her hand upon his shoulder as he half rose from his chair, his pipe fallen to the floor. Young Matt rose to his feet and moved closer to the girl, who was also standing. The stranger alone kept his seat and he noted the agitation of the others in wonder.
For some moments the sound continued, now soft and low, with the sweet sadness of the wind in the pines; then clear and ringing, it echoed and reechoed along the mountain; now pleadings, as though a soul in darkness prayed a gleam of light; again rising, swelling exultingly, as in glad triumph, only to die away once more to that moaning wail, seeming at last to lose itself in the mists.
Slowly Old Matt sank back into his seat and the stranger heard him mutter, "Poor boy, poor boy." Aunt Mollie was weeping. Suddenly Sammy sprang from the steps and running down the walk to the gate sent a clear, piercing call over the valley: "O—h—h, Pete." The group on the porch listened intently. Again the girl called, and yet again: "O—h—h, Pete." But there was no answer.
"It's no use, honey," said Mrs. Matthews, breaking the silence; "it just ain't no use;" and the young girl came slowly back to the porch.
A CHAT WITH AUNT MOLLIE.
When the stranger looked from his window the next morning, the valley was still wrapped in its gray blanket. But when he and his host came from the house after breakfast, the sun had climbed well above the ridge, and, save a long, loosely twisted rope of fog that hung above the distant river, the mists were gone. The city man exclaimed with delight at the beauty of the scene.
As they stood watching the sheep—white specks in the distance— climbing out of the valley where the long shadows still lay, to the higher, sunlit pastures, Mr. Matthews said, "We've all been a talkin' about you this mornin', Mr. Howitt, and we'd like mighty well to have you stop with us for a spell. If I understood right, you're just out for your health anyway, and you'll go a long ways, sir, before you find a healthier place than this right here. We ain't got much such as you're used to, I know, but what we have is yourn, and we'd be proud to have you make yourself to home for as long as you'd like to stay. You see it's been a good while since we met up with anybody like you, and we count it a real favor to have you."
Mr. Howitt accepted the invitation with evident pleasure, and, soon after, the mountaineer rode away to Bear Creek, on his quest for a man to herd sheep. Young Matt had already gone with his team to the field on the hillside west of the house, and the brown pony stood at the gate ready for Sammy Lane to return to her home on Dewey Bald.
"I'd like the best in the world to stay, Aunt Mollie," she said, in answer to Mrs. Matthews' protest; "but you know there is no one to feed the stock, and besides Mandy Ford will be back sometime to-day."
The older woman's arm was around the girl as they went down the walk. "You must come over real often, now, honey; you know it won't be long 'til you'll be a leavin' us for good. How do you reckon you'll like bein' a fine lady, and livin' in the city with them big folks?"
The girl's face flushed, and her eyes had that wide questioning look, as she answered slowly, "I don't know, Aunt Mollie; I ain't never seen a sure 'nough fine lady; I reckon them city folks are a heap different from us, but I reckon they're just as human. It would be nice to have lots of money and pretties, but somehow I feel like there's a heap more than that to think about. Any how," she added brightly, "I ain't goin' for quite a spell yet, and you know 'Preachin' Bill' says, 'There ain't no use to worry 'bout the choppin' 'til the dogs has treed the coon.' I'll sure come over every day."
Mrs. Matthews kissed the girl, and then, standing at the gate, watched until pony and rider had disappeared in the forest.
Later Aunt Mollie, with a woman's fondness for a quiet chat, brought the potatoes she was preparing for dinner, to sit with Mr. Howitt on the porch. "I declare I don't know what we'll do without Sammy," she said; "I just can't bear to think of her goin' away."
The guest, feeling that some sort of a reply was expected, asked, "Is the family moving from the neighborhood?"
"No, sir, there ain't no family to move. Just Sammy and her Pa, and Jim Lane won't never leave this country again. You see Ollie Stewart's uncle, his father's brother it is, ain't got no children of his own, and he wrote for Ollie to come and live with him in the city. He's to go to school and learn the business, foundry and machine shops, or something like that it is; and if the boy does what's right, he's to get it all some day; Ollie and Sammy has been promised ever since the talk first began about his goin'; but they'll wait now until he gets through his schoolin'. It'll be mighty nice for Sammy, marryin' Ollie, but we'll miss her awful; the whole country will miss her, too. She's just the life of the neighborhood, and everybody 'lows there never was another girl like her. Poor child, she ain't had no mother since she was a little trick, and she has always come to me for everything like, us bein' such close neighbors, and all. But law! sir, I ain't a blamin' her a mite for goin', with her Daddy a runnin' with that ornery Wash Gibbs the way he does."
Again the man felt called upon to express his interest; "Is Mr. Lane in business with this man Gibbs?"
"Law, no! that is, don't nobody know about any business; I reckon it's all on account of those old Bald Knobbers; they used to hold their meetin's on top of Dewey yonder, and folks do say a man was burned there once, because he told some of their secrets. Well, Jim and Wash's daddy, and Wash, all belonged, 'though Wash himself wasn't much more than a boy then; and when the government broke up the gang, old man Gibbs was killed, and Jim went to Texas. It was there that Sammy's Ma died. When Jim come back it wasn't long before he was mighty thick again with Wash and his crowd down on the river, and he's been that way ever since. There's them that says it's the same old gang, what's left of them, and some thinks too that Jim and Wash knows about the old Dewey mine."
Mr. Howitt, remembering his conversation with Jed Holland, asked encouragingly, "Is this mine a very rich one?"
"Don't nobody rightly know about that, sir," answered Aunt Mollie. "This is how it was: away back when the Injuns was makin' trouble 'cause the government was movin' them west to the territory, this old man Dewey lived up there somewhere on that mountain. He was a mighty queer old fellow; didn't mix up with the settlers at all, except Uncle Josh Hensley's boy who wasn't right smart, and didn't nobody know where he come from nor nothing; but all the same, 'twas him that warned the settlers of the trouble, and helped them all through it, scoutin' and such. And one time when they was about out of bullets and didn't have nothin' to make more out of, Colonel Dewey took a couple of men and some mules up on that mountain yonder in the night, and when they got back they was just loaded down with lead, but he wouldn't tell nobody where he got it, and as long as he was with them, the men didn't dare tell. Well, sir, them two men was killed soon after by the Injuns, and when the trouble was finally over, old Dewey disappeared, and ain't never been heard tell of since. They say the mine is somewhere's in a big cave, but nobody ain't never found it, 'though there's them that says the Bald Knobbers used the cave to hide their stuff in, and that's how Jim Lane and Wash Gibbs knows where it is; it's all mighty queer. You can see for yourself that Lost Creek down yonder just sinks clean out of sight all at once; there must be a big hole in there somewhere."
Aunt Mollie pointed with her knife to the little stream that winds like a thread of light down into the Hollow. "I tell you, sir, these hills is pretty to look at, but there ain't much here for a girl like Sammy, and I don't blame her a mite for wantin' to leave. It's a mighty hard place to live, Mr. Howitt, and dangerous, too, sometimes."
"The city has its hardships and its dangers too, Mrs. Matthews; life there demands almost too much at times; I often wonder if it is worth the struggle."
"I guess that's so," replied Aunt Mollie, "but it don't seem like it could be so hard as it is here. I tell Mr. Matthews we've clean forgot the ways of civilized folks; altogether, though, I suppose we've done as well as most, and we hadn't ought to complain."
The old scholar looked at the sturdy figure in its plain calico dress; at the worn hands, busy with their homely task; and the patient, kindly face, across which time had ploughed many a furrow, in which to plant the seeds of character and worth. He thought of other women who had sat with him on hotel verandas, at fashionable watering places; women gowned in silks and laces; women whose soft hands knew no heavier task than the filmy fancy work they toyed with, and whose greatest care, seemingly, was that time should leave upon their faces no record of the passing years. "And this is the stuff," said he to himself, "that makes possible the civilization that produces them." Aloud, he said, "Do you ever talk of going back to your old home?"
"No, sir, not now;" she rested her wet hands idly on the edge of the pan of potatoes, and turned her face toward the clump of pines. "We used to think we'd go back sometime; seemed like at first I couldn't stand it; then the children come, and every time we laid one of them over there I thought less about leavin', until now we never talk about it no more. Then there was our girl, too, Mr. Howitt. No, sir, we won't never leave these hills now."
"Oh, you had a daughter, too? I understood from Mr. Matthews that your children were all boys."
Aunt Mollie worked a few moments longer in silence, then arose and turned toward the house. "Yes, sir, there was a girl; she's buried under that biggest pine you see off there a little to one side. We—we—don't never talk about her. Mr. Matthews can't stand it. Seems like he ain't never been the same since—since—it happened. 'Tain't natural for him to be so rough and short; he's just as good and kind inside as any man ever was or could be. He's real taken with you, Mr. Howitt, and I'm mighty glad you're goin' to stop a spell, for it will do him good. If it hadn't been for Sammy Lane runnin' in every day or two, I don't guess he could have stood it at all. I sure don't know what we'll do now that she's goin' away. Then there's—there's—that at the ranch in Mutton Hollow; but I guess I'd better not try to tell you about that. I wish Mr. Matthews would, though; maybe he will. You know so much more than us; I know most you could help us or tell us about things."
After the midday meal, while walking about the place, Mr. Howitt found a well worn path; it led him to the group of pines not far from the house, where five rough head stones marked the five mounds placed side by side. A little apart from these was another mound, alone.
Beneath the pines the needles made a carpet, firm and smooth, figured by the wild woodbine that clambered over the graves; moss had gathered on the head stones, and the wind, in the dark branches above, moaned ceaselessly. About the little plot of ground a rustic fence of poles was built, and the path led to a stile by which one might enter the enclosure.
The stranger seated himself upon the rude steps. Below and far away he saw the low hills, rolling ridge on ridge like the waves of a great sea, until in the blue distance they were so lost in the sky that he could not say which was mountain and which was cloud. His poet heart was stirred at sight of the vast reaches of the forest all shifting light and shadows; the cool depths of the near-by woods with the sunlight filtering through the leafy arches in streaks and patches of gold on green; and the wide, wide sky with fleets of cloud ships sailing to unseen ports below the hills.
The man sat very still, and as he looked the worn face changed; once, as if at some pleasing memory, he smiled. A gray squirrel with bright eyes full of curious regard peeped over the limb of an oak; a red bird hopping from bush to bush whistled to his mate; and a bob-white's quick call came from a nearby thicket.
The dreamer was aroused at last by the musical tinkle of a bell. He turned his face toward the sound, but could see nothing. The bell was coming nearer; it came nearer still. Then he saw here and there through the trees small, moving patches of white; an old ewe followed by two lambs came from behind a clump of bushes, and the moving patches of white shaped themselves into other sheep feeding in the timber.
Mr. Howitt sat quite still, and, while the old ewe paused to look at him, the lambs took advantage of the opportunity, until their mother was satisfied with her inspection, and by moving on, upset them. Soon the whole flock surrounded him, and, after the first lingering look of inquiry, paid no heed to his presence.
Then from somewhere among the trees came the quick, low bark of a dog. The man looked carefully in every direction; he could see nothing but the sheep, yet he felt himself observed. Again came the short bark; and this time a voice—a girl's voice, Mr. Howitt thought—said, "It's alright, Brave; go on, brother." And from behind a big rock not far away a shepherd dog appeared, followed by a youth of some fifteen years.
He was a lightly built boy; a bit tall for his age, perhaps, but perfectly erect; and his every movement was one of indescribable grace, while he managed, somehow, to wear his rough backwoods garments with an air of distinction as remarkable as it was charming. The face was finely molded, almost girlish, with the large gray eyes, and its frame of yellow, golden hair. It was a sad face when in repose, yet wonderfully responsive to every passing thought and mood. But the eyes, with their strange expression, and shifting light, proclaimed the lad's mental condition.
As the boy came forward in a shy, hesitating way, an expression of amazement and wonder crept into the stranger's face; he left his seat and started forward. "Howard," he said; "Howard."
"That ain't his name, Mister; his name's Pete," returned the youth, in low, soft tones.
In the voice and manner of the lad, no less than in his face and eyes, Mr. Howitt read his story. Unconsciously he echoed the words of Mr. Matthews, "Poor Pete."
The dog lifted his head and looked into the man's face, while his tail wagged a joyful greeting, and, as the man stooped to pat the animal and speak a few kind words, a beautiful smile broke over the delicate features of the youth. Throwing himself upon the ground, he cried, "Come here, Brave"; and taking the dog's face between his hands, said in confidential tones, ignoring Mr. Howitt's presence, "He's a good man, ain't he, brother?" The dog answered with wagging tail. "We sure like him, don't we?" The dog gave a low bark. "Listen, Brave, listen." He lifted his face to the tree tops, then turned his ear to the ground, while the dog, too, seemed to hearken. Again that strange smile illuminated his face; "Yes, yes, Brave, we sure like him. And the tree things like him, too, brother; and the flowers, the little flower things that know everything; they're all a singin' to Pete 'cause he's come. Did you see the flower things in his eyes, and hear the tree things a talkin' in his voice, Brave? And see, brother, the sheep like him too!" Pointing toward the stranger, he laughed aloud. The old ewe had come quite close to the man, and one of the lambs was nibbling at his trousers' leg.
Mr. Howitt seated himself on the stile again, and the dog, released by the youth, came to lie down at his feet; while the boy seemed to forget his companions, and appeared to be listening to voices unheard by them, now and then nodding his head and moving his lips in answer.
The old man looked long and thoughtfully at the youth, his own face revealing a troubled mind. This then was Pete, Poor Pete. "Howard," whispered the man; "the perfect image;" then again he said, half aloud, "Howard."
The boy turned his face and smiled; "That ain't his name, Mister; his name's Pete. Pete seen you yesterday over on Dewey, and Pete he heard the big hills and the woods a singin' when you talked. But Jed he didn't hear. Jed he don't hear nothin' but himself; he can't. But Pete he heard and all Pete's people, too. And the gray mist things come out and danced along the mountain, 'cause they was so glad you come. And Pete went with you along the Old Trail. Course, though, you didn't know. Do you like Pete's people, Mister?" He waved his hands to include the forest, the mountains and the sky; and there was a note of anxiety in the sweet voice as he asked again: "Do you like Pete's friends?"
"Yes, indeed, I like your friends," replied Mr. Howitt, heartily; "and I would like to be your friend too, if you will let me. What is your other name?"
The boy shook his head; "Not me; not me;" he said; "do you like Pete?"
The man was puzzled. "Are you not Pete?" he asked.
The delicate face grew sad: "No, no, no," he said in a low moaning tone; "I'm not Pete; Pete, he lives in here;" he touched himself on the breast. "I am—I am—" A look of hopeless bewilderment crept into his eyes; "I don't know who I am; I'm jest nobody. Nobody can't have no name, can he?" He stood with downcast head; then suddenly he raised his face and the shadows lifted, as he said, "But Pete he knows, Mister, ask Pete."
A sudden thought came to Mr. Howitt. "Who is your father, my boy?"
Instantly the brightness vanished; again the words were a puzzled moan; "I ain't got no father, Mister; I ain't me; nobody can't have no father, can he?"
The other spoke quickly; "But Pete had a father; who was Pete's father?" Instantly the gloom was gone and the face was bright again. "Sure, Mister, Pete's got a father; don't you know? Everybody knows that. Look!" He pointed upward to a break in the trees, to a large cumulus cloud that had assumed a fantastic shape. "He lives in them white hills, up there. See him, Mister? Sometimes he takes Pete with him up through the sky, and course I go along. We sail, and sail, and sail, with the big bird things up there, while the sky things sing; and sometimes we play with the cloud things, all day in them white hills. Pete says he'll take me away up there where the star things live, some day, and we won't never come back again; and I won't be nobody no more; and Aunt Mollie says she reckons Pete knows. 'Course, I'd hate mighty much to go away from Uncle Matt and Aunt Mollie and Matt and Sammy, 'cause they're mighty good to me; but I jest got to go where Pete goes, you see, 'cause I ain't nobody, and nobody can't be nothin', can he?"
The stranger was fascinated by the wonderful charm of the boy's manner and words. As the lad's sensitive face glowed or was clouded by each wayward thought, and the music of his sweet voice rose and fell, Mr. Howitt told himself that one might easily fancy the child some wandering spirit of the woods and hills. Aloud, he asked, "Has Pete a mother, too?"
The youth nodded toward the big pine that grew to one side of the group, and, lowering his voice, replied, "That's Pete's mother."
Mr. Howitt pointed to the grave; "You mean she sleeps there?"
"No, no, not there; there!" He pointed up to the big tree, itself. "She never sleeps; don't you hear her?" He paused. The wind moaned through the branches of the pine. Drawing closer to the stranger's side, the boy whispered, "She always talks that a way; always, and it makes Pete feel bad. She wants somebody. Hear her callin', callin', callin'? He'll sure come some day, Mister; he sure will. Say, do you know where he is?"
The stranger, startled, drew back; "No, no, my boy, certainly not; what do you mean; who are you?"
Like the moaning of the pines came the reply, "Nothin', Mister, nobody can't mean nothin', can they? I'm jest nobody. But Pete lives in here; ask Pete."
"Is Pete watching the sheep?" asked Mr. Howitt, anxious to divert the boy's mind to other channels.
"Yes, we're a tendin' 'em now; but they can't trust us, you know; when they call Pete, he just goes, and course I've got to go 'long."
"Who is it calls Pete?"
"Why, they, don't you know? I 'lowed you knowed about things. They called Pete last night. The moonlight things was out, and all the shadow things; didn't you see them, Mister? The moonlight things, the wind, the stars, the shadow things, and all the rest played with Pete in the shiny mists, and, course, I was along. Didn't you hear singin'? Pete he always sings that a way, when the moonlight things is out. Seems like he just can't help it."
"But what becomes of the sheep when Pete goes away?"
The boy shook his head sadly; "Sometimes they get so lost that Young Matt can't never find 'em; sometimes wolves get 'em; it's too bad, Mister, it sure is." Then laughing aloud, he clapped his hands; "There was a feller at the ranch to keep 'em, but he didn't stay; Ho! Ho! he didn't stay, you bet he didn't. Pete didn't like him, Brave didn't like him, nothing didn't like him, the trees wouldn't talk when he was around, the flowers died when he looked at 'em, and the birds all stopped singin' and went away over the mountains. He didn't stay, though." Again he laughed. "You bet he didn't stay! Pete knows."
"Why did the man go?" asked Mr. Howitt, thinking to solve a part of the mystery, at least. But the only answer he could draw from the boy was, "Pete knows; Pete knows."
Later when the stranger returned to the house, Pete went with him; at the big gate they met Mr. Matthews, returning unsuccessful from his trip.
"Hello, boy!" said the big man; "How's Pete to-day?"
The lad went with glad face to the giant mountaineer. It was clear that the two were the warmest friends. "Pete's mighty glad to-day, 'cause he's come." He pointed to Mr. Howitt. "Does Pete like him?"
The boy nodded. "All Pete's people like him. Ask him to keep the sheep, Uncle Matt. He won't be scared at the shadow things in the night."
Mr. Matthews smiled, as he turned to his guest. "Pete never makes a mistake in his judgment of men, Mr. Howitt. He's different from us ordinary folks, as you can see; but in some things he knows a heap more. I'm mighty glad he's took up with you, sir. All day I've been thinking I'd tell you about some things I don't like to talk about; I feel after last night like you'd understand, maybe, and might help me, you having education. But still I've been a little afraid, us being such strangers. I know I'm right now, 'cause Pete says so. If you weren't the kind of a man I think you are, he'd never took to you like he has."
That night the mountaineer told the stranger from the city the story that I have put down in the next chapter.
Slowly the big mountaineer filled his cob pipe with strong, home grown tobacco, watching his guest keenly the while, from under heavy brows. Behind the dark pines the sky was blood red, and below, Mutton Hollow was fast being lost in the gathering gloom.
When his pipe was lighted, Old Matt said, "Well, sir, I reckon you think some things you seen and heard since you come last night are mighty queer. I ain't sayin', neither, but what you got reasons for thinkin' so."
Mr. Howitt made no reply. And, after puffing a few moments in silence, the other continued, "If it weren't for what you said last night makin' me feel like I wanted to talk to you, and Pete a takin' up with you the way he has, I wouldn't be a tellin' you what I am goin' to now. There's some trails, Mr. Howitt, that ain't pleasant to go back over. I didn't 'low to ever go over this one again. Did you and Pete talk much this afternoon?"
In a few words Mr. Howitt told of his meeting with the strange boy, and their conversation. When he had finished, the big man smoked in silence. It was as if he found it hard to begin. From a tree on the mountain side below, a screech owl sent up his long, quavering call; a bat darted past in the dusk; and away over on Compton Ridge a hound bayed. The mountaineer spoke; "That's Sam Wilson's dog, Ranger; must a' started a fox." The sound died away in the distance. Old Matt began his story.
"Our folks all live back in Illinois. And if I do say so, they are as good stock as you'll find anywhere. But there was a lot of us, and I always had a notion to settle in a new country where there was more room like and land wasn't so dear; so when wife and I was married we come out here. I recollect we camped at the spring below Jim Lane's cabin on yon side of Old Dewey, there. That was before Jim was married, and a wild young buck he was too, as ever you see. The next day wife and I rode along the Old Trail 'til we struck this gap, and here we've been ever since.
"We've had our ups and downs like most folks, sir, and sometimes it looked like they was mostly downs; but we got along, and last fall I bought in the ranch down there in the Hollow. The boy was just eighteen and we thought then that he'd be makin' his home there some day. I don't know how that'll be now, but there was another reason too why we wanted the place, as you'll see when I get to it.
"There was five other boys, as I told you last night. The oldest two would have been men now. The girl"—his voice broke—"the girl she come third; she was twenty when we buried her over there. That was fifteen year ago come the middle of next month.
"Everybody 'lowed she was a mighty pretty baby, and, bein' the only girl, I reckon we made more of her than we did of the boys. She growed up into a mighty fine young woman too; strong, and full of fire and go, like Sammy Lane. Seems to wife and me when Sammy's 'round that it's our own girl come back and we've always hoped that she and Grant would take the ranch down yonder; but I reckon that's all over, now that Ollie Stewart has come into such a fine thing in the city. Anyway, it ain't got nothing to do with this that I'm a tellin' you.
"She didn't seem to care nothin' at all for none of the neighbor boys like most girls do; she'd go with them and have a good time alright, but that was all. 'Peared like she'd rather be with her brothers or her mother or me.
"Well, one day, when we was out on the range a ridin' for stock— she'd often go with me that way—we met a stranger over there at the deer lick in the big low gap, coming along the Old Trail. He was as fine a lookin' man as you ever see, sir; big and grand like, with lightish hair, kind, of wavy, and a big mustache like his hair, and fine white teeth showing when he smiled. He was sure good lookin', damn him! and with his fine store clothes and a smooth easy way of talkin' and actin' he had, 'tain't no wonder she took up with him. We all did. I used to think God never made a finer body for a man. I know now that Hell don't hold a meaner heart than the one in that same fine body. And that's somethin' that bothers me a heap, Mr. Howitt.
"As I say, our girl was built like Sammy Lane, and so far as looks go she was his dead match. I used to wonder when I'd look at them together if there ever was such another fine lookin' pair. I ain't a goin' to tell you his name; there ain't no call to, as I can see. There might be some decent man named the same. But he was one of these here artist fellows and had come into the hills to paint, he said."
A smothered exclamation burst from the listener.
Mr. Matthews, not noticing, continued: "He sure did make a lot of pictures and they seemed mighty nice to us, 'though of course we didn't know nothin' about such things. There was one big one he made of Maggie that was as natural as life. He was always drawin' of her in one way or another, and had a lot of little pictures that didn't amount to much, and that he didn't never finish. But this big one he worked at off and on all summer. It was sure fine, with her a standin' by the ranch spring, holdin' out a cup of water, and smilin' like she was offerin' you a drink."
It was well that the night had fallen. At Old Matt's words the stranger shrank back in his chair, his hand raised as if to ward off a deadly blow. He made a sound in his throat as if he would cry out, but could not from horror or fear. But the darkness hid his face, and the mountaineer, with mind intent upon his story, did not heed.
"He took an old cabin at the foot of the hill near where the sheep corral is now, and fixed it up to work in. The shack had been built first by old man Dewey, him that the mountain's named after. It was down there he painted the big picture of her a standin' by the big spring. We never thought nothin' about her bein' with him so much. Country folks is that way, Mr. Howitt, 'though we ought to knowed better; we sure ought to knowed better." The old giant paused and for some time sat with his head bowed, his forgotten pipe on the floor.
"Well," he began again; "he stopped with us all that summer, and then one day he went out as usual and didn't come back. We hunted the hills out for signs, thinkin' maybe he met up with some trouble. He'd sent all his pictures away the week before, Jim Lane haulin' them to the settlement for him.
"The girl was nigh about wild and rode with me all durin' the hunt, and once when we saw some buzzards circlin', she gave a little cry and turned so white that I suspicioned maybe she got to thinkin' more of him than we knew. Then one afternoon when we were down yonder in the Hollow, she says, all of a sudden like, 'Daddy, it ain't no use a ridin' no more. He ain't met up with no trouble. He's left all the trouble with us.' She looked so piqued and her eyes were so big and starin' that it come over me in a flash what she meant. She saw in a minute that I sensed it, and just hung her head, and we come home.
"She just kept a gettin' worse and worse, Mr. Howitt; 'peared to fade away like, like I watched them big glade lilies do when the hot weather comes. About the only time she would show any life at all was when someone would go for the mail, when she'd always be at the gate a waitin' for us.
"Then one day, a letter come. I brung it myself. She give a little cry when I handed it to her, and run into the house, most like her old self. I went on out to the barn to put up my horse, thinkin' maybe it was goin' to be alright after all; but pretty soon, I heard a scream and then a laugh. 'Fore God, sir, that laugh's a ringin' in my ears yet. She was ravin' mad when I got to her, a laughin', and a screechin', and tryin' to hurt herself, all the while callin' for him to come.
"I read the letter afterwards. It told over and over how he loved her and how no woman could ever be to him what she was; said they was made for each other, and all that; and then it went on to say how he couldn't never see her again; and told about what a grand old family his was, and how his father was so proud and expected such great things from him, that he didn't dare tell, them bein' the last of this here old family, and her bein' a backwoods girl, without any schoolin' or nothin'."
"My God! O, my God!" faltered the stranger's voice in the darkness.
Old Matt talked on in a hard easy tone. "Course it was all wrote out nice and smooth like he talked, but that's the sense of it. He finished it by sayin' that he would be on his way to the old country when the letter reached her, and that it wouldn't be no use to try to find him.
"The girl quieted down after a spell, but her mind never come back. She wasn't just to say plumb crazy, but she seemed kind o' dazed and lost like, and wouldn't take no notice of nobody. Acted all the time like she was expectin' him to come. And she'd stand out there by the gate for hours at a time, watchin' the Old Trail and talkin' low to herself.
"Pete is her boy, Mr. Howitt, and as you've seen he ain't just right. Seems like he was marked some way in his mind like you've seen other folks marked in their bodies. We've done our best by the boy, sir, but I don't guess he'll ever be any better. Once for a spell we tried keepin' him to home, but he got right sick and would o' died sure, if we hadn't let him go; it was pitiful to see him. Everybody 'lows there won't nothin' in the woods hurt him nohow; so we let him come and go, as he likes; and he just stops with the neighbors wherever he happens in. Folks are all as good to him as they can be, 'cause everybody knows how it is. You see, sir, people here don't think nothin' of a wood's colt, nohow, but we was raised different. As wife says, we've most forgot civilized ways, but I guess there's some things a man that's been raised right can't never forget.
"She died when Pete was born, and the last thing she said was, 'He'll come, Daddy, he'll sure come.' Pete says the wind singin' in that big pine over her grave is her a callin' for him yet. It's mighty queer how the boy got that notion, but you see that's the way it is with him.
"And that ain't all, sir." The big man moved his chair nearer the other, and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper; "Folks say she's come back. There's them that swears they've seen her 'round the old cabin where they used to meet when he painted her picture, the big one, you know. Just before I bought the ranch, it was first; and that's why we can't get no one to stay with the sheep.
"I don't know, Mr. Howitt; I don't know. I've thought a heap about it, I ain't never seen it myself, and it 'pears to me that if she COULD come back at all, she'd sure come to her old Daddy. Then again I figure it that bein' took the way she was, part of her dead, so to speak, from the time she got that letter, and her mind so set on his comin' back, that maybe somehow—you see—that maybe she is sort a waitin' for him there. Many's the time I have prayed all night that God would let me meet him again just once, or that proud father of his'n, just once, sir; I'd glad go to Hell if I could only meet them first. If she is waitin' for him down there, he'll come; he'll sure come. Hell couldn't hold him against such as that, and when he comes—"
Unconsciously, as he spoke the last sentences, the giant's voice took a tone of terrible meaning, and he slowly rose from his seat. When he uttered the last word he was standing erect, his muscles tense, his powerful frame shaken with passion.
There was an inarticulate cry of horror, as the mountaineer's guest started to his feet. A moment he stood, then sank back into his chair, a cowering, shivering heap.
Long into the night, the stranger walked the floor of his little room under the roof, his face drawn and white, whispering half aloud things that would have startled his unsuspecting host. "MY boy—MY boy—MINE! To do such a thing as that! Howard—Howard. O Christ! that I should live to be glad that you are dead! And that picture! His masterpiece, the picture that made his fame, the picture he would never part with, and that we could never find! I see it all now! Just God, what a thing to carry on one's soul!"
Once he paused to stand at the window, looking down upon the valley. The moon had climbed high above the mountain, but beneath the flood of silver light the shadows lay dark and deep in Mutton Hollow. Then as he stood there, from out the shadowy gloom, came the wild, weird song they had heard the evening before. The man at the window groaned. The song sank to a low, moaning wail, and he seemed to hear again the wind in the pine above the grave of the murdered girl. She was calling, calling—would he come back? Back from the grave, could he come? The words of the giant mountaineer seemed burned into the father's brain; Hell couldn't hold him against such as that.
Then the man with the proud face, the face of a scholar and poet, drew back from the window, shaking with a fear he could not control. He crept into a corner and crouched upon the floor. With wide eyes, he stared into the dark. He prayed.
And this is how it came about that the stranger, who followed the Old Trail along the higher sunlit ground, followed, also, the other trail down into the valley where the gloomy shadows are; there to live at the ranch near the haunted cabin—the shepherd of Mutton Hollow.
WHAT IS LOVE?
Sammy Lane rode very slowly on her way home from the Matthews place that morning after the stranger had arrived. She started out at her usual reckless gait, but that was because she knew that Young Matt was watching her.
Once in the timber, the brown pony was pulled to a walk, and by the time they came out into the open again, the little horse, unrebuked by his mistress, was snatching mouthfuls of grass as he strolled along the trail. Sammy was thinking; thinking very seriously. Aunt Mollie's parting question had stirred the girl deeply.
Sammy had seen few people who did not belong to the backwoods. The strangers she had met were hunters or cattlemen, and these had all been, in dress and manner, not unlike the natives themselves. This man, who had come so unexpectedly out of the mists the night before, was unlike anyone the young woman had ever known. Like Jed Holland, she felt somehow as if he were a superior being. The Matthews family were different in many ways from those born and raised in the hills. And Sammy's father, too, was different. But this stranger—it was quite as though he belonged to another world.
Coming to the big, low gap, the girl looked far away to the blue line of hills, miles, and miles away. The stranger had come from over these, she thought; and then she fell to wondering what that world beyond the farthest cloud-like ridge was like.
Of all the people Sammy had ever known, young Stewart was the only one who had seen even the edge of that world to tell her about it. Her father and her friends, the Matthews's, never talked of the old days. She had known Ollie from a child. With Young Matt they had gone to and from the log school house along the same road. Once, before Mr. Stewart's death, the boy had gone with his father for a day's visit to the city, and ever after had been a hero to his backwoods schoolmates. It was this distinction, really, that first won Sammy's admiration, and made them sweethearts before the girl's skirts had touched the tops of her shoes. Before the woman in her was fairly awake she had promised to be his wife; and they were going away now to live in that enchanted land.
Spying an extra choice bunch of grass a few steps to one side of the path, Brownie turned suddenly toward the valley; and the girl's eyes left the distant ridge for the little cabin and the sheep corral in Mutton Hollow. Sammy always spoke of that cabin as "Young Matt's house." And, all unbidden now, the thought came, who would live with the big fellow down there in the valley when she had gone far away to make her home with Ollie and his people in the city?
An impatient tug at the reins informed Brownie that his mistress was aware of his existence, and, for a time, the pony was obliged to pass many a luscious bunch of grass. But soon the reins fell slack again. The little horse moved slowly, and still more slowly, until, by the relaxed figure of his rider, he knew it was safe to again browse on the grass along the path.
So, wondering, dreaming, Sammy Lane rode down the trail that morning—the trail that is nobody knows how old. And on the hill back of the Matthews house a team was standing idle in the middle of the field.
At the big rock on the mountain side, where the trail seems to pause a moment before starting down to the valley, the girl slipped from her saddle, and, leaving Brownie to wander at will, climbed to her favorite seat. Half reclining in the warm sunshine, she watched the sheep feeding near, and laughed aloud as she saw the lambs with wagging tails, greedily suckling at their mother's sides; near by in a black-haw bush a mother bird sat on her nest; a gray mare, with a week old colt following on unsteady legs, came over the ridge; and not far away; a mother sow with ten squealing pigs came out of the timber. Keeping very still the young woman watched until they disappeared around the mountain. Then, lifting her arms above her head, she stretched her lithe form out upon the warm rocky couch with the freedom and grace of a wild thing of the woods.
Sammy Lane knew nothing of the laws and customs of the, so-called, best society. Her splendid young womanhood was not the product of those social traditions and rules that kill the instinct of her kind before it is fairly born. She was as free and as physically perfect as any of the free creatures that lived in the hills. And, keenly alive to the life that throbbed and surged about her, her woman's heart and soul responded to the spirit of the season. The droning of the bees in the blossoms that grew in a cranny of the rock; the tinkle, tinkle of the sheep bells, as the flock moved slowly in their feeding; and the soft breathing of Mother Earth was in her ears; while the gentle breeze that stirred her hair came heavy with the smell of growing things. Lying so, she looked far up into the blue sky where a buzzard floated on lazy wings. If she were up there she perhaps could see that world beyond the hills. Then suddenly a voice came to her, Aunt Mollie's voice, "How do you reckon you'll like bein' a fine lady, Sammy, and a livin' in the city with the big folks?"
The girl turned on her side and rising on one elbow looked again at Mutton Hollow with its little cabin half hidden in the timber. And, as she looked, slowly her rich red life colored cheek, and neck, and brow. With a gesture of impatience, Sammy turned away to her own home on the southern slope of the mountain, just in time to see a young woman ride into the clearing and dismount before the cabin door. It was her friend, Mandy Ford. The girl on the rock whistled to her pony, and, mounting, made her way down the hill.
All that day the strange guest at the Matthews place was the one topic of conversation between the two girls.
"Shucks," said Mandy, when Sammy had finished a very minute description of Mr. Howitt; "he's jest some revenue, like's not."
Sammy tossed her head; "Revenue! you ought to see him! Revenues don't come in no such clothes as them, and they don't talk like him, neither."
"Can't tell 'bout revenues," retorted the other. "Don't you mind how that'n fooled everybody over on th' bend last year? He was jest as common as common, and folks all 'lowed he was just one of 'em."
"But this one ain't like anybody that we ever met up with, and that's jest it," returned Sammy.
Mandy shook her head; "You say he ain't huntin'; he sure ain't buyin' cattle this time o' year; and he ain't a wantin' t' locate a comin' in on foot; what else can he be but a revenue?"
To which Sammy replied with an unanswerable argument; "Look a here, Mandy Ford; you jest tell me, would a low down revenue ask a blessin' like Parson Bigelow does?"
At this Mandy gave up the case, saying in despair, "Well, what is he a doin' here then? 'Tain't likely he's done come into th' woods fer nothin'."
"He told Old Matt that he was sick and tired of it all," answered the other.
"Did he look like he was ailin'?"
Sammy replied slowly, "I don't reckon it's that kind of sickness he meant; and when you look right close into his eyes, he does 'pear kind o' used up like."
In connection with this discussion, it was easy to speak of Miss Lane's fairy prospects, for, was not the stranger from the city? and was not Sammy going to live in that land of wonders? The two girls were preparing for the night, when Sammy, who was seated on the edge of the bed, paused, with one shoe off, to ask thoughtfully, "Mandy, what is love, anyhow?"
Mandy looked surprised. "I reckon you ought to know," she said with a laugh; "Ollie's been a hangin' 'round you ever since I can remember."
Sammy was struggling with a knot in the other shoe lace; "Yes," she admitted slowly; "I reckon I had ought to know; but what do you say it is, Mandy?"
"Why, hit's—hit's—jest a caring fer somebody more'n fer ary one else in th' whole world."
"Is that all?" The knot was still stubborn.
"No, hit ain't all. Hit's a goin' t' live with somebody an' a lettin' him take care o' you, 'stead o' your folks." Sammy was still struggling with the knot. "An' hit's a cookin' an' a scrubbin' an' a mendin' fer him, an'—an'—sometimes hit's a splittin' wood, an' a doin' chores, too; an' I reckon that's all."
Just here the knot came undone, and the shoe dropped to the floor with a thud. Sammy sat upright. "No, it ain't, Mandy; it's a heap more'n that; it's a nursin' babies, and a takin' care of 'em 'till they're growed up, and then when they're big enough to take care o' themselves, and you're old and in the way, like Grandma Bowles, it's a lookin' back over it all, and bein' glad you done married the man you did. It's a heap more'n livin' with a man, Mandy; it's a doin' all that, without ever once wishin' he was somebody else."
This was too much for Mandy; she blushed and giggled, then remarked, as she gazed admiringly at her friend, "You'll look mighty fine, Sammy, when you get fixed up with all them pretties you'll have when you an' Ollie git married. I wish my hair was bright an' shiny like yourn. How do you reckon you'll like bein' a fine lady anyhow?"
Here it was again. Sammy turned upon her helpless friend, with, "How do I know if I would like it or not? What is bein' a fine lady, anyhow?"
"Why, bein' a fine lady is—is livin' in a big house with carpets on th' floor, an' lookin' glasses, an' not havin' no work t' do, an' wearin' pretty clothes, with lots of rings an' things, an'— an'," she paused; then finished in triumph, "an' a ridin' in a carriage."
That wide questioning look was in Sammy's eyes as she returned, "It's a heap more'n that, Mandy. I don't jest sense what it is, but I know 'tain't all them things that makes a sure 'nough lady. 'Tain't the clothes he wears that makes Mr. Howitt different from the folks we know. He don't wear no rings, and he walks. He's jest different 'cause he's different; and would be, no matter what he had on or where he was."
This, too, was beyond Mandy. Sammy continued, as she finished her preparations for retiring; "This here house is plenty big enough for me, least wise it would be if it had one more room like the cabin in Mutton Hollow; carpets would be mighty dirty and unhandy to clean when the men folks come trampin' in with their muddy boots; I wouldn't want to wear no dresses so fine I couldn't knock 'round in the brush with them; and it would be awful to have nothin' to do; as for a carriage, I wouldn't swap Brownie for a whole city full of carriages." She slipped into bed and stretched out luxuriously. "Do you reckon I could be a fine lady, and be as I am now, a livin' here in the hills?"
The next day Mandy went back to her home on Jake Creek. And in the evening Sammy's father, with Wash Gibbs, returned, both men and horses showing the effects of a long, hard ride.
"WHY AIN'T WE GOT NO FOLKS."
Preachin' Bill says "There's a heap o' difference in most men, but Jim Lane now he's more different than ary man you ever seed. Ain't no better neighbor'n Jim anywhere. Ride out o' his way any time t' do you a favor. But you bet there ain't ary man lives can ask Jim any fool questions while Jim's a lookin' at him. Tried it onct myself. Jim was a waitin' at th' ferry fer Wash Gibbs, an' we was a talkin' 'long right peart 'bout crops an' th' weather an' such, when I says, says I, like a dumb ol' fool, 'How'd you like it down in Texas, Jim, when you was there that time?' I gonies! His jaw shet with a click like he'd cocked a pistol, an' that look o' hisn, like he was a seein' plumb through you, come int' his eyes, an' he says, says he, quiet like, 'D' you reckon that rain over on James yesterday raised th' river much?' An' 'fore I knowed it, I was a tellin' him how that ol' red bull o' mine treed th' Perkins' boys when they was a possum huntin'."
Many stories of the Bald Knobber days, when the law of the land was the law of rifle and rope, were drifting about the country side, and always, when these tales were recited, the name of Jim Lane was whispered; while the bolder ones wondered beneath their breath where Jim went so much with that Wash Gibbs, whose daddy was killed by the Government.
Mr. Lane was a tall man, well set up, with something in his face and bearing that told of good breeding; southern blood, one would say, by the dark skin, and the eyes, hair, and drooping mustache of black.
His companion, Wash Gibbs, was a gigantic man; taller and heavier, even, than the elder Matthews, but more loosely put together than Old Matt; with coarse, heavy features, and, as Grandma Bowles said, "the look of a sheep killin' dog." Grandma, being very near her journey's end, could tell the truth even about Wash Gibbs, but others spoke of the giant only in whispers, save when they spoke in admiration of his physical powers.
As the two men swung stiffly from their saddles, Sammy came running to greet her father with a kiss of welcome; this little exhibition of affection between parent and child was one of the many things that marked the Lanes as different from the natives of that region. Your true backwoodsman carefully hides every sign of his love for either family or friends. Wash Gibbs stood looking on with an expression upon his brutal face that had very little of the human in it.
Releasing his daughter, Mr. Lane said, "Got anything to eat, honey? We're powerful hungry. Wash 'lowed we'd better tie up at the river, but I knew you'd be watching for me. The horses are plumb beat." And Gibbs broke in with a coarse laugh, "I wouldn't mind killin' a hoss neither, if I was t' git what you do at th' end o' th' ride."
To this, Jim made no reply; but began loosening the saddle girths, while Sammy only said, as she turned toward the house, "I'll have supper ready for you directly, Daddy."
While the host was busy caring for his tired horse, the big man, who did not remove the saddle from his mount, followed the girl into the cabin. "Can't you even tell a feller, Howdy?" he exclaimed, as he entered the kitchen.
"I did tell you, Howdy," replied the girl sharply, stirring up the fire.
"'Pears like you might o' been a grain warmer about hit," growled the other, seating himself where he could watch her. "If I'd been Young Matt er that skinny Ollie Stewart, you'd a' been keen enough."
Sammy turned and faced him with angry eyes; "Look a here, Wash Gibbs, I done tol' you last Thursday when you come for Daddy that you'd better let me alone. I don't like you, and I don't aim to ever have anything to do with you. You done fixed yourself with me that time at the Cove picnic. I'll tell Daddy about that if you don't mind. I don't want to make no trouble, but you just got to quit pestering me."
The big fellow sneered. "I 'lowed you might change your mind 'bout that some day. Jim ain't goin' t' say nothin' t' me, an' if he did, words don't break no bones. I'm a heap th' best man in this neck o' th' woods, an' your Paw knows hit. You know it, too."
Under his look, the blood rushed to the girl's face in a burning blush. In spite of her anger she dropped her eyes, and, without attempting a reply, turned to her work.
A moment later, Mr. Lane entered the room; a single glance at his daughter's face, a quick look at Wash Gibbs, as the bully sat following with wolfish eyes every movement of the girl, and Jim stepped quietly in front of his guest. At the same moment, Sammy left the house for a bucket of water, and Wash turned toward his host with a start to find the dark faced man gazing at him with a look that few men could face with composure. Without a word, Jim's right hand crept stealthily inside his hickory shirt, where a button was missing.
For a moment Gibbs tried to return the look. He failed. Something he read in the dark face before him—some meaning light in those black eyes—made him tremble and he felt, rather than saw, Jim's hand resting quietly now inside the hickory shirt near his left arm pit. The big man's face went white beneath the tan, his eyes wavered and shifted, he hung his head and shuffled his feet uneasily, like an overgrown school-boy brought sharply to task by the master.
Then Jim, his hand still inside his shirt, drawled, softly, but with a queer metallic ring in his voice, "Do you reckon it's a goin' t' storm again?"
At the commonplace question, the bully drew a long breath and looked around. "We might have a spell o' weather," he muttered; "but I don't guess it'll be t'night."
Then Sammy returned and they had supper.
Next to his daughter, Jim Lane loved his violin, and with good reason, for the instrument had once belonged to his great- grandfather, who, tradition says, was a musician of no mean ability.
Preachin' Bill "'lowed there was a heap o' difference between a playin' a violin an' jest fiddlin'. You wouldn't know some fellers was a makin' music, if you didn't see 'em a pattin' their foot; but hit ain't that a way with Jim Lane. He sure do make music, real music." As no one ever questioned Bill's judgment, it is safe to conclude that Mr. Lane inherited something of his great- grandfather's ability; along with his treasured instrument.
When supper was over, and Wash Gibbs had gone on his way; Jim took the violin from its peg above the fireplace, and, tucking it lovingly under his chin, gave himself up to his favorite pastime, while Sammy moved busily about the cabin, putting things right for the night.
When her evening tasks were finished, the girl came and stood before her father. At once the music ceased and the violin was laid carefully aside. Sammy seated herself on her father's knee.
"Law', child, but you're sure growin' up," said Jim, with a mock groan at her weight.
"Yes, Daddy, I reckon I'm about growed; I'll be nineteen come Christmas."
"O shucks!" ejaculated the man. "It wasn't more'n last week that you was washin' doll clothes, down by the spring."
The young woman laughed. "I didn't wash no doll clothes last week," she said. Then her voice changed, and that wide, questioning look, the look that made one think so of her father, came into her eyes. "There's something I want to ask you, Daddy Jim. You—you know—Ollie's goin' away, an'—an'—an' I was thinkin' about it all day yesterday, an', Daddy, why ain't we got no folks?"
Mr. Lane stirred uneasily. Sammy continued, "There's the Matthews's, they've got kin back in Illinois; Mandy Ford's got uncles and aunts over on Lang Creek; Jed Holland's got a grandad and mam, and even Preachin' Bill talks about a pack o' kin folks over in Arkansaw. Why ain't we got no folks, Daddy?"
The man gazed long and thoughtfully at the fresh young face of his child; and the black eyes looked into the brown eyes keenly, as he answered her question with another question, "Do you reckon you love him right smart, honey? Are you sure, dead sure you ain't thinkin' of what he's got 'stead of what he is? I know it'll be mighty nice for you to be one of the fine folks and they're big reasons why you ought, but it's goin' to take a mighty good man to match you—a mighty good man. And it's the man you've got to live with, not his money."
"Ollie's good, Daddy," she returned in a low voice, her eyes fixed upon the floor.
"I know, I know," replied Jim. "He wouldn't do nobody no harm; he's good enough that way, and I ain't a faultin' him. But you ought to have a MAN, a sure enough good man."
"But tell me, Daddy, why ain't we got no folks?"
The faintest glimmer of a smile came into the dark face; "You're sure growed up, girl; you're sure growed up, girl; you sure are. An' I reckon you might as well know." Then he told her.
SAMMY LANE'S FOLKS.
It began on a big southern plantation, where there were several brothers and sisters, with a gentleman father of no little pride, and a lady mother of equal pride and great beauty.
With much care for detail, Jim drew a picture of the big mansion with its wide lawns, flower gardens and tree bordered walks; with its wealth of culture, its servants, and distinguished guests; for, said he, "When you get to be a fine lady, you ought to know that you got as good blood as the best of the thorough-breds." And Sammy, interrupting his speech with a kiss, bade him go on with his story.
Then he told how the one black sheep of that proud southern flock had been cast forth from the beautiful home while still hardly grown; and how, with his horse, gun and violin, the wanderer had come into the heart of the Ozark wilderness, when the print of moccasin feet was still warm on the Old Trail. Jim sketched broadly here, and for some reason did not fully explain the cause of his banishment; neither did he comment in any way upon its justice or injustice.
Time passed, and a strong, clear-eyed, clean-limbed, deep-bosomed mountain lass, with all the mastering passion of her kind, mated the free, half wild, young hunter; and they settled in the cabin by the spring on the southern slope of Dewey. Then the little one came, and in her veins there was mingled the blue blood of the proud southerners and the warm red life of her wilderness mother.
Again Jim's story grew rich in detail. Holding his daughter at arm's length, and looking at her through half-closed eyes, he said, "You're like her, honey; you're mighty like her; same eyes, same hair, same mouth, same build, same way of movin', strong, but smooth and free like. She could run clean to the top of Dewey, or sit a horse all day. Do you ever get tired, girl?"
Sammy laughed, and shook her head; "I've run from here to the signal tree, lots of times, Daddy."
"You're like the old folks, too," mused Jim; "like them in what you think and say."
"Tell me more," said the girl. "Seems like I remember bein' in a big wagon, and there was a woman there too; was she my mother?"
Jim nodded, and unconsciously lowered his voice, as he said, "It was in the old Bald Knobber time. Things happened in them days, honey. Many's the night I've seen the top of old Dewey yonder black with men. It was when things was broke up, that—that your mother and me thought we could do better in Texas; so we went," Jim was again sketching broadly.
"Your mother left us there, girl. Seemed like she couldn't stand it, bein' away from the hills or somethin', and she just give up. I never did rightly know how it was. We buried her out there, way out on the big plains."
"I remember her a little," whispered Sammy. Jim continued; "Then after a time you and me come back to the old place. Your mother named you Samantha, girl, but bein' as there wasn't no boy, I always called you Sammy. It seems right enough that way now, for you've sure been more'n a son to me since we've been alone; and that's one reason why I learned you to ride and shoot with the best of them.
"There's them that says I ain't done right by you, bringing you up without ary woman about the place; and I don't know as I have, but somehow I couldn't never think of no woman as I ought, after living with your mother. And then there was Aunt Mollie to learn you how to cook and do things about the house. I counted a good bit, too, on the old stock, and it sure showed up right. You're like the old folks, girl, in the way you think, but you're like your mother in the way you look."
Sammy's arms went around her father's neck, "You're a good man, Daddy Jim; the best Daddy a girl ever had; and if I ain't all bad, it's on account of you." There was a queer look on the man's dark face. He had sketched some parts of his tale with a broad hand, indeed.
The girl raised her head again; "But, Daddy, I wish you'd do something for me. I—I don't like Wash Gibbs to be a comin' here. I wish you'd quit ridin' with him, Daddy. I'm—I'm afeared of him; he looks at me so. He's a sure bad one—I know he is, Daddy."
Jim laughed and again there was that odd metallic note in his voice; "I've knowed him a long time, honey. Me and his daddy was— was together when he died; and you used to sit on Wash's knee when you was a little tad. Not that he's so mighty much older than you, but he was a man's size at fifteen. You don't understand, girl, but I've got to go with him sometimes. But don't you fret; Wash Gibbs ain't goin' to hurt me, and he won't come here more'n I can help, either." Then he changed the subject abruptly. "Tell me what you've been doin' while I was away."
Sammy told of' her visit to their friends at the Matthews place, and of the stranger who had come into the neighborhood. As the girl talked, her father questioned her carefully, and several times the metallic note crept into his soft, drawling speech, while into his eyes came that peculiar, searching look, as if he would draw from his daughter even more than she knew of the incident. Once he rose, and, going to the door, stood looking out into the night.
Sammy finished with her answer to Mandy Ford's opinion of the stranger; "You don't reckon a revenue would ask a blessin', do you, Daddy? Seems like he just naturally wouldn't dast; God would make the victuals stick in his throat and choke him sure."
Jim laughed, as he replied, "I don't know, girl; I never heard of a revenue's doin' such. But a feller can't tell."
When Sammy left him to retire for the night, her father picked up the violin again, and placed it beneath his chin as if to play; but he did not touch the strings, and soon hung the instrument in its place above the mantel. Then, going to the doorway, he lighted his pipe, and, for a full hour, sat, looking up the Old Trail toward the Matthews place, his right hand thrust into the bosom of his hickory shirt, where the button was missing.
A FEAT OF STRENGTH AND A CHALLENGE.
What the club is to the city man, and the general store or postoffice to the citizens of the country village, the mill is to the native of the backwoods.
Made to saw the little rough lumber he needs in his primitive building, or to grind his corn into the rough meal, that is his staff of life, the mill does more for the settler than this; it brings together the scattered population, it is the news center, the heart of the social life, and the hub of the industrial wheel.
On grinding day, the Ozark mountaineer goes to mill on horse-back, his grist in a sack behind the saddle, or, indeed, taking place of the saddle itself. The rule is, first come, first served. So, while waiting his turn, or waiting for a neighbor who will ride in the same direction, the woodsman has time to contribute his share to the gossip of the country side, or to take part in the discussions that are of more or less vital interest. When the talk runs slow, there are games; pitching horse shoes, borrowed from the blacksmith shop—there is always a blacksmith shop near by; running or jumping contests, or wrestling or shooting matches.
Fall Creek Mill, owned and operated by Mr. Matthews and his son, was located on Fall Creek in a deep, narrow valley, about a mile from their home.
A little old threshing engine, one of the very first to take the place of the horse power, and itself in turn already pushed to the wall by improved competitors, rolled the saw or the burr. This engine, which had been rescued by Mr. Matthews from the scrap-pile of a Springfield machine shop, was accepted as evidence beyond question of the superior intelligence and genius of the Matthews family. In fact, Fall Creek Mill gave the whole Mutton Hollow neighborhood such a tone of up-to-date enterprise, that folks from the Bend, or the mouth of the James, looked upon the Mutton Hollow people with no little envy and awe, not to say even jealousy.
The settlers came to the Matthews mill from far up the creek, crossing and recrossing the little stream; from Iron Spring and from Gardner, beyond Sand Ridge, following faint, twisting bridle paths through the forest; from the other side of Dewey Bald, along the Old Trail; from the Cove and from the Postoffice at the Forks, down the wagon road, through the pinery; and from Wolf Ridge and the head of Indian Creek beyond, climbing the rough mountains. Even from the river bottoms they came, yellow and shaking with ague, to swap tobacco and yarns, and to watch with never failing interest the crazy old engine, as Young Matt patted, and coaxed, and flattered her into doing his will.
They began coming early that grinding day, two weeks after Mr. Howitt had been installed at the ranch. But the young engineer was ready, with a good head of steam in the old patched boiler, and the smoke was rising from the rusty stack, in a long, twisting line, above the motionless tree tops.
It was a great day for Young Matt; great because he knew that Sammy Lane would be coming to mill; he would see her and talk with her; perhaps if he were quick enough, he might even lift her from the brown pony.
It was a great day, too, because Ollie Stewart would be saying good-by, and before to-morrow would be on his way out of the hills. Not that it mattered whether Ollie went or not. It was settled that Sammy was going to marry young Stewart; that was what mattered. And Young Matt had given her up. And, as he had told his father in the barn that day, it was alright. But still—still it was a great day, because Ollie would be saying good-by.
It was a great day in Young Matt's life, too, because on that day he would issue his challenge to the acknowledged champion of the country-side, Wash Gibbs. But Young Matt did not know this until afterwards, for it all came about in a very unexpected way.
The company had been discussing the new arrival in the neighborhood, and speculating as to the probable length of Mr. Howitt's stay at the ranch, and while Young Matt was in the burr- house with his father, they had gone over yet again the familiar incidents of the ghost story; how "Budd Wilson seen her as close as from here t' th' shop yonder." How "Joe Gardner's mule had gone plumb hog-wild when he tried to ride past the ol' ruins near th' ranch." And "how Lem Wheeler, while out hunting that roan steer o' hisn, had heard a moanin' an' a wailin' under the bluff."
Upon Young Matthews returning to his engine, the conversation had been skilfully changed, to Ollie Stewart and his remarkable good fortune. From Ollie and his golden prospects, it was an easy way to Sammy Lane and her coming marriage.