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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter12)

2006-08-29 01:35

  Chapter XII

  Christmas was approaching and no greater wonder had ever dawned on the lives of Mavis and Jason than the way these people in the settlements made ready for it. In the mountains many had never heard of Christmas and few of Christmas stockings, Santa Claus, and catching Christmas gifts——not even the Hawns, But Mavis and Jason had known of Christmas, had celebrated it after the mountain way, and knew, moreover, what the Blue-grass children did not know, of old Christmas as well, which came just twelve days after the new. At midnight of old Christmas, so the old folks in the mountains said, the elders bloomed and the beasts of the field and the cattle in the barn kneeled lowing and moaning, and once the two children had slipped out of their grandfather's house to the barn and waited to watch the cattle and to listen to them, but they suffered from the cold, and when they told what they had done next morning, their grandfather said they had not waited long enough, for it happened just at midnight; so when Mavis and Jason told Marjorie and Gray of old Christmas they all agreed they would wait up this time till midnight sure.

  As for new Christmas in the hills, the women paid little attention to it, and to the men it meant "a jug of liquor, a pistol in each hand, and a galloping nag." Always, indeed, it meant drinking, and target-shooting to see "who should drink and who should smell," for the man who made a bad shot got nothing but a smell from the jug until he had redeemed himself. So, Steve Hawn and Jason got ready in their own way and Mavis and Martha Hawn accepted their rude preparations as a matter of course.

  At four o'clock in the afternoon before Christmas Eve darkies began springing around the corners of the twin houses, and from closets and from behind doors, upon the white folks and shouting "Christmas gift," for to the one who said the greeting first the gift came, and it is safe to say that no darky in the Blue-grass was caught that day. And the Pendleton clan made ready to make merry. Kinspeople gathered at the old general's ancient home and at the twin houses on either side of the road. Stockings were hung up and eager-eyed children went to restless dreams of their holiday king. Steve Hawn, too, had made ready with boxes of cartridges and two jugs of red liquor, and he and Jason did not wait for the morrow to make merry. And Uncle Arch Hawn happened to come in that night, but he was chary of the cup, and he frowned with displeasure at Jason, who was taking his dram with Steve like a man, and he showed displeasure before he rode away that night by planting a thorn in the very heart of Jason's sensitive soul. When he had climbed on his horse he turned to Jason.

  "Jason," he drawled, "you can come back home now when you git good an' ready. Thar ain't no trouble down thar just now, an' Babe Honeycutt ain't lookin' fer you."

  Jason gasped. He had not dared to ask a single question about the one thing that had been torturing his curiosity and his soul, and Arch was bringing it out before them all as though it were the most casual and unimportant matter in the world. Steve and his wife looked amazed and Mavis's heart quickened.

  "Babe ain't lookin' fer ye," Arch drawled on, "he's laughin' at ye. I reckon you thought you'd killed him, but he stumbled over a root an' fell down just as you shot. He says you missed him a mile. He says you couldn't hit a barn in plain daylight." And he started away.

  A furious oath broke from Jason's gaping mouth, Steve laughed, and if the boy's pistol had been in his hand, he might in his rage have shown Arch as he rode away what his marksmanship could be even in the dark, but even with his uncle's laugh, too, coming back to him he had to turn quickly into the house and let his wrath bite silently inward.

  But Mavis's eyes were like moist stars.

  "Oh, Jasie, I'm so glad," she said, but he only stared and turned roughly on toward the jug in the corner.

  Before day next morning the children in the big houses were making the walls ring with laughter and shouts of joy. Rockets whizzed against the dawn, fire-crackers popped unceasingly, and now and then a loaded anvil boomed through the crackling air, but there was no happy awakening for little Jason. All night his pride had smarted like a hornet sting, his sleep was restless and bitter with dreams of revenge, and the hot current in his veins surged back and forth in the old channel of hate for the slayer of his father. Next morning his blood-shot eyes opened fierce and sullen and he started the day with a visit to the whiskey jug: then he filled his belt and pockets with cartridges.

  Early in the afternoon Marjorie and Gray drove over with Christmas greetings and little presents. Mavis went out to meet them, and when Jason half-staggered out to the gate, the visitors called to him merrily and became instantly grave and still. Mavis flushed, Marjorie paled with horror and disgust, Gray flamed with wonder and contempt and quickly whipped up his horse——the mountain boy was drunk.

  Jason stared after them, knowing something had suddenly gone wrong, and while he said nothing, his face got all the angrier, he rushed in for his belt and pistol, and shaking his head from side to side, swaggered out to the stable and began saddling his old mare. Mavis stood in the doorway frightened and ashamed, the boy's mother pleaded with him to come into the house and lie down, but without a word to either he mounted with difficulty and rode down the road. Steve Hawn, who had been silently watching him, laughed.

  "Let him alone——he ain't goin' to do nothin'." Down the road the boy rode with more drunken swagger than his years in the wake of Marjorie and Gray——unconsciously in the wake of anything that was even critical, much less hostile, and in front of Gray's house he pulled up and gazed long at the pillars and the broad open door, but not a soul was in sight and he paced slowly on. A few hundred yards down the turnpike he pulled up again and long and critically surveyed a woodland. His eye caught one lone tree in the centre of an amphitheatrical hollow just visible over the slope of a hill. The look of the tree interested him, for its growth was strange, and he opened the gate and rode across the thick turf toward it. The bark was smooth, the tree was the size of a man's body, and he dismounted, nodding his head up and down with much satisfaction. Standing close to the tree, he pulled out his knife, cut out a square of the bark as high as the first button of his coat and moving around the trunk cut out several more squares at the same level.

  "I reckon," he muttered, "that's whar his heart is yit, if I ain't growed too much."

  Then he led the old mare to higher ground, came back, levelled his pistol, and moving in a circle around the tree, pulled the trigger opposite each square, and with every shot he grunted:

  "Can't hit a barn, can't I, by Heck!"

  In each square a bullet went home. Then he reloaded and walked rapidly around the tree, still firing.

  "An' I reckon that's a-makin' some nail-holes fer his galluses!"

  And reloading again he ran around the tree, firing.

  "An' mebbe I couldn't still git him if I was hikin' fer the corner of a house an' was in a leetle grain of a hurry to git out o' his range."

  Examining results at a close range, the boy was quite satisfied—— hardly a shot had struck without a band three inches in width around the tree. There was one further test that he had not yet made; but he felt sober now and he drew a bottle from his hip- pocket and pulled at it hard and long. The old nag grazing above him had paid no more attention to the fusillade than to the buzzing of flies. He mounted her, and Gray, riding at a gallop to make out what the unearthly racket going on in the hollow was, saw the boy going at full speed in a circle about the tree, firing and yelling, and as Gray himself in a moment more would be in range, he shouted a warning. Jason stopped and waited with belligerent eyes as Gray rode toward him.

  "I say, Jason," Gray smiled, "I'm afraid my father wouldn't like that——you've pretty near killed that tree."

  Jason stared, amazed——

  "Fust time I ever heerd of anybody not wantin' a feller to shoot at a tree."

  Gray saw that he was in earnest and he kept on, smiling.

  "Well, we haven't got as many trees here as you have down in the mountains, and up here they're more valuable."

  The last words were unfortunate.

  "Looks like you keer a heep fer yo' trees," sneered the mountain boy with a wave of his pistol toward a demolished woodland; "an' if our trees air so wuthless, whut do you furriners come down thar and rob us of 'em fer?"

  The sneer, the tone, and the bitter emphasis on the one ugly word turned Gray's face quite red.

  "You mustn't say anything like that to me," was his answer, and the self-control in his voice but helped make the mountain boy lose his at once and completely. He rode straight for Gray and pulled in, waving his pistol crazily before the latter's face, and Gray could actually hear the grinding of his teeth.

  "Go git yo' gun! Git yo' gun!"

  Gray turned very pale, but he showed no fear.

  "I don't know what's the matter with you," he said steadily, "but you must be drunk."

  "Go git yo' gun!" was the furious answer. "Go git yo' gun!"

  "Boys don't fight with guns in this country, but——"

  "You're a d——d coward," yelled Jason.

  Gray's fist shot through the mist of rage that suddenly blinded him, catching Jason on the point of the chin, and as the mountain boy spun half around in his saddle, Gray caught the pistol in both hands and in the struggle both rolled, still clutching the weapon, to the ground, Gray saying with quiet fury:

  "Drop that pistol and I'll lick hell out of you!"

  There was no answer but the twist of Jason's wrist, and the bullet went harmlessly upward. Before he could pull the trigger again, the sinewy fingers of a man's hand closed over the weapon and pushed it flat with the earth, and Jason's upturned eyes looked into the grave face of the school-master. That face was stern and shamed Jason instantly. The two boys rose to their feet, and the mountain boy turned away from the school-master and saw Marjorie standing ten yards away white and terror-stricken, and her eyes when he met them blazed at him with a light that no human eye had ever turned on him before. The boy knew anger, rage, hate, revenge, but contempt was new to him, and his soul was filled with sudden shame that was no less strange, but the spirit in him was undaunted, and like a challenged young buck his head went up as he turned again to face his accuser.

  "Were you going to shoot an unarmed boy?" asked John Burnham gravely.

  "He hit me."

  "You called him a coward."

  "He hit me."

  "He offered to fight you fist and skull."

  "He had the same chance to git the gun that I had."

  "He wasn't trying to get it in order to shoot you."

  Jason made no answer and the school-master repeated:

  "He offered to fight you fist and skull."

  "I was too mad——but I'll fight him now."

  "Boys don't fight in the presence of young ladies."

  Gray spoke up and in his tone was the contempt that was in Marjorie's eyes, and it made the mountain boy writhe.

  "I wouldn't soil my hands on you——now."

  The school-master rebuked Gray with a gesture, but Jason was confused and sick now and he held out his hand for his pistol.

  "I better be goin' now——this ain't no place fer me."

  The school-master gravely handed the weapon to him.

  "I'm coming over to have a talk with you, Jason," he said.

  The boy made no answer. He climbed on his horse slowly. His face was very pale, and once only he swept the group with eyes that were badgered but no longer angry, and as they rested on Marjorie, there was a pitiful, lonely something in them that instantly melted her and almost started her tears. Then he rode silently and slowly away.

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