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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter36)

2006-08-29 01:42

  Chapter XXXVI

  It was three days before Steve Hawn returned, ill-humored, reddened by drink, and worn. As ever, Martha Hawn asked no questions and Jason betrayed no curiosity, no suspicion, though he was not surprised to learn that in a neighboring county the night riders had been at their lawless work, and he had no doubt that Steve was among them. Jason would be able to help but little that autumn in the tobacco field, for it was his last year in college and he meant to work hard at his books, but he knew that the dispute between his step-father and Colonel Pendleton was still unsettled——that Steve was bitter and had a secret relentless purpose to get even. He did not dare give Colonel Pendleton a warning, for it was difficult, and he knew the fiery old gentleman would receive such an intervention with a gracious smile and dismiss it with haughty contempt; so Jason decided merely to keep a close watch on Steve.

  On the opening day of college, as on the opening day three years before, Jason walked through the fields to town, but he did not start at dawn. The dew-born mists were gone and the land lay, with no mystery to the eye or the mind, under a brilliant sun-the fields of stately corn, the yellow tents of wheat gone from the golden stretches of stubble, and green trees rising from the dull golden sheen of the stripped blue-grass pastures. The cut, upturned tobacco no longer looked like hunchbacked witches on broom-sticks and ready for flight, for the leaves, waxen, oily, inert, hung limp and listless from the sticks that pointed like needles to the north to keep the stalks inclined as much as possible from the sun. Even they had taken on the Midas touch of gold, for all green and gold that world of blue-grass was——all green and gold, except for the shaggy unkempt fields where the king of weeds had tented the year before and turned them over to his camp followers——ragweed, dockweed, white-top, and cockle-burr. But the resentment against such an agricultural outrage that the boy had caught from John Burnham was no longer so deep, for that tobacco had kept his mother and himself alive and the father of his best friend must look to it now to save himself from destruction. All the way Jason, walking leisurely, confidently, proudly, and with the fires of his ambition no less keen, thought of the green mountain boy who had torn across those fields at sunrise, that when "school took up" he might not be late——thought of him with much humor and with no little sympathy. When he saw the smoke cloud over the town he took to the white turnpike and quickened his pace. Again the campus of the rival old Transylvania was dotted with students moving to and fro. Again the same policeman stood on the same corner, but now he shook hands with Jason and called him by name. When he passed between the two gray stone pillars with pyramidal tops and swung along the driveway between the maple-trees and chattering sparrows, there were the same boys with caps pushed back and trousers turned up, the same girls with hair up and hair down, but what a difference now for him! Even while he looked around there was a shout from a crowd around John Burnham's doorway; several darted from that crowd toward him and the crowd followed. A dozen of them were trying to catch his hand at once, and the welcome he had seen Gray Pendleton once get he got now for himself, for again a pair of hands went high, a series of barbaric yells were barked out, and the air was rent with the name of Jason Hawn. Among them Jason stood flushed, shy, grateful. A moment later he saw John Burnham in the doorway—— looking no less pleased and waiting for him. Even the old president paused on his crutches for a handshake and a word of welcome. The boy found himself wishing that Marjorie——and Mavis—— were there, and, as he walked up the steps, from out behind John Burnham Marjorie stepped——proud for him and radiant.

  And so, through that autumn, the rectangular, diametric little comedy went on between Marjorie and Jason in the Blue-grass and between Gray and Mavis in the hills. No Saturday passed that Jason did not spend at his mother's home or with John Burnham, and to the mother and Steve and to Burnham his motive was plain——for most of the boy's time was spent with Marjorie Pendleton. Somehow Marjorie seemed always driving to town or coming home when Jason was on his way home or going to town, and somehow he was always afoot and Marjorie was always giving him a kindly lift one or the other way. Moreover, horses were plentiful as barn-yard fowls on Morton Sanders' farm, and the manager, John Burnham's brother, who had taken a great fancy to Jason, gave him a mount whenever the boy pleased. And so John Burnham saw the pair galloping the turnpikes or through the fields, or at dusk going slowly toward Marjorie's home. Besides, Marjorie organized many hunting parties that autumn, and the moon and the stars looking down saw the two never apart for long. About the intimacy Mrs. Pendleton and the colonel thought little. Colonel Pendleton liked the boy, Mrs. Pendleton wanted Marjorie at home, and she was glad for her to have companionship. Moreover, to both, Marjorie was still a child, anything serious would be absurd, and anyway Marjorie was meant for Gray.

  In the mountains Gray's interest in his life was growing every day. He liked to watch things planned and grow into execution. His day began with the screech of a whistle at midnight. Every morning he saw the sun rise and the mists unroll and the drenched flanks of the mountains glisten and drip under the sunlight. During the afternoon he woke up in time to stroll down the creek, meet Mavis after school and walk back to the circuit rider's house with her. After supper every night he would go down the spur and sit under the honeysuckles with her on the porch. The third time he came the old man and woman quietly withdrew and were seen no more, and this happened thereafter all the time. Meanwhile in the Blue-grass and the hills the forked tongues of gossip began to play, reaching last, as usual, those who were most concerned, but, as usual, reaching them, too, in time. In the Blue-grass it was criticism of Colonel and Mrs. Pendleton, their indifference, carelessness, blindness, a gaping question of their sanity at the risk of even a suspicion that such a mating might be possible——the proud daughter of a proud family with a nobody from the hills, unknown except that he belonged to a fierce family whose history could be written in human blood; who himself had been in jail on the charge of murder; whose mother could not write her own name; whose step- father was a common tobacco tenant no less illiterate, and with a brain that was a hotbed of lawless mischief, and who held the life of a man as cheap as the life of a steer fattening for the butcher's knife. But in all the gossip there was no sinister suggestion or even thought save in the primitive inference of this same Steve Hawn.

  In the mountains, too, the gossip was for a while innocent. To the simple democratic mountain way of thinking, there was nothing strange in the intimacy of Mavis and Gray. There Gray was no better than any mountain boy. He was in love with Mavis, he was courting her, and if he won her he would marry her, and that simply was all——particularly in the mind of old grandfather Hawn. Likewise, too, was there for a while nothing sinister in the talk, for at first Mavis held to the mountain custom, and would not walk in the woods with Gray unless one of the school-children was along——nothing sinister except to little Aaron Honeycutt, whose code had been a little poisoned by his two years' stay outside the hills.

  Once more about each pair the elements of social tragedy began to concentrate, intensify, and become active. The new development in the hills made business competition keen between Shade Hawn and Hiram Honeycutt, who each ran a hotel and store in the county- seat. As old Jason Hawn and old Aaron Honeycutt had retired from the leadership, and little Jason and little Aaron had been out of the hills, leadership naturally was assumed by these two business rivals, who revived the old hostility between the factions, but gave vent to it in a secret, underhanded way that disgusted not only old Jason but even old Aaron as well. For now and then a hired Hawn would drop a Honeycutt from the bushes and a hired Honeycutt would drop a Hawn. There was, said old Jason with an oath of contempt, no manhood left in the feud. No principal went gunning for a principal——no hired assassin for another of his kind.

  "Nobody ain't shootin' the right feller," said the old man. "Looks like hit's a question of which hired feller gits fust the man who hired the other feller."

  And when this observation reached old Aaron he agreed heartily.

  "Fer once in his life," he said, "old Jason Hawn kind o' by accident is a-hittin' the truth." And each old man bet in his secret heart, if little Aaron and little Jason were only at home together, things would go on in quite a different way.

  In the lowlands the tobacco pool had been formed and, when persuasion and argument failed, was starting violent measures to force into the pool raisers who would not go in willingly. In the western and southern parts of the State the night riders had been more than ever active. Tobacco beds had been destroyed, barns had been burned, and men had been threatened, whipped, and shot. Colonel Pendleton found himself gradually getting estranged from some of his best friends. He quarrelled with old Morton Sanders, and in time he retired to his farm, as though it were the pole of the earth. His land was his own to do with as he pleased. No man, no power but the Almighty and the law, could tell him what he must do. The tobacco pool was using the very methods of the trust it was seeking to destroy. Under those circumstances he considered his duty to himself paramount to his duty to his neighbor, and his duty to himself he would do; and so the old gentleman lived proudly in his loneliness and refused to know fear, though the night riders were getting busy now in the counties adjacent to the Blue-grass, and were threatening raids into the colonel's own county——the proudest in the State. Other "independents" hardly less lonely, hardly less hated, had electrified their barbed-wire fences, and had hired guards——fighting men from the mountains——to watch their barns and houses, but such an example the colonel would not follow, though John Burnham pleaded with him, and even Jason dared at last to give him a covert warning, with no hint, however, that the warning was against his own step-father Steve. It was the duty of the law to protect him, the colonel further argued; the county judge had sworn that the law would do its best; and only when the law could not protect him would the colonel protect himself.

  And so the winter months passed until one morning a wood-thrush hidden in green depths sent up a song of spring to Gray's ears in the hills, and in the Blue-grass a meadow-lark wheeling in the sun-light showered down the same song upon the heart of Jason Hawn.

  Almost every Saturday Mavis would go down to stay till Monday with her grandfather Hawn. Gray would drift down there to see her——and always, while Mavis was helping her grandmother in the kitchen, Gray and old Jason would sit together on the porch. Gray never tired of the old man's shrewd humor, quaint philosophy, his hunting tales and stories of the feud, and old Jason liked Gray and trusted him more the more he saw of him. And Gray was a little startled when it soon became evident that the old man took it for granted that in his intimacy with Mavis was one meaning and only one.

  "I al'ays thought Mavis would marry Jason," he said one night, "but, Lordy Mighty, I'm nigh on to eighty an' I don't know no more about gals than when I was eighteen. A feller stands more chance with some of 'em stayin' away, an' agin if he stays away from some of 'em he don't stand no chance at all. An' agin I rickollect that if I hadn't 'a' got mad an' left grandma in thar jist at one time an' hadn't 'a' come back jist at the right time another time, I'd 'a' lost her——shore. Looks like you're cuttin' Jason out mighty fast now——but which kind of a gal Mavis in thar is, I don't know no more'n if I'd never seed her."

  Gray flushed and said nothing, and a little later the old man went frankly on:

  "I'm gittin' purty old now an' I hain't goin' to last much longer, I reckon. An' I want you to know if you an' Mavis hitch up fer a life-trot tergether I aim to divide this farm betwixt her an' Jason, an' you an' Mavis can have the half up thar closest to the mines, so you can be close to yo' work."

  The boy was saved any answer, for the old man expected and waited for none, so simple was the whole matter to him, but Gray, winding up the creek homeward in the moonlight that night, did some pretty serious thinking. No such interpretation could have been put on the intimacy between him and Mavis at home, for there companionship, coquetry, sentiment, devotion even, were possible without serious parental concern. Young people in the Blue-grass handled their own heart affairs, and so they did for that matter in the hills, but Gray could not realize that primitive conditions forbade attention without intention: for life was simple, mating was early because life was so simple, and Nature's way with humanity was as with her creatures of the fields and air except for the eye of God and the hand of the law. A license, a few words from the circuit rider, a cleared hill-side, a one-room log cabin, a side of bacon, and a bag of meal——and, from old Jason's point of view, Gray and Mavis could enter the happy portals, create life for others, and go on hand in hand to the grave. So that where complexity would block Jason in the Blue-grass, simplicity would halt Gray in the hills. To be sure, the strangeness, the wildness, the activity of the life had fascinated Gray. He loved to ride the mountains and trails——even to slosh along the river road with the rain beating on him, dry and warm under a poncho. Often he would be caught out in the hills and have to stay all night in a cabin; and thus he learned the way of life away from the mines and the river bottoms. So far that poor life had only been pathetic and picturesque, but now when he thought of it as a part of his own life, of the people becoming through Mavis his people, he shuddered and stopped in the moonlit road-aghast. Still, the code of his father was his, all women were sacred, and with all there would be but one duty for him, if circumstances, as they bade fair to now, made that one duty plain. And if his father should go under, if Morton Sanders took over his home and the boy must make his own way and live his life where he was——why not? Gray sat in the porch of the house on the spur, long asking himself that question. He was asking it when he finally went to bed, and he went with it, unanswered, to sleep.

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