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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter9)

2006-08-29 01:34

  Chapter IX

  September in the Blue-grass. The earth cooling from the summer's heat, the nights vigorous and chill, the fields greening with a second spring. Skies long, low, hazy, and gently arched over rolling field and meadow and woodland. The trees gray with the dust that had sifted all summer long from the limestone turnpikes. The streams shrunken to rivulets that trickled through crevices between broad flat stones and oozed through beds of water-cress and crow-foot, horse-mint and pickerel-weed, the wells low, cisterns empty, and recourse for water to barrels and the sunken ponds. The farmers cutting corn, still green, for stock, and ploughing ragweed strongholds for the sowing of wheat. The hemp an Indian village of gray wigwams. And a time of weeds——indeed the heyday of weeds of every kind, and the harvest time for the king weed of them all. Everywhere his yellow robes were hanging to poles and drying in the warm sun. Everywhere led the conquering war trail of the unkingly usurper, everywhere in his wake was devastation. The iron-weed had given up his purple crown, and yellow wheat, silver-gray oats, and rippling barley had fled at the sight of his banner to the open sunny spaces as though to make their last stand an indignant appeal that all might see. Even the proud woodlands looked ragged and drooping, for here and there the ruthless marauder had flanked one and driven a battalion into its very heart, and here and there charred stumps told plainly how he had overrun, destroyed, and ravished the virgin soil beneath. A fuzzy little parasite was throttling the life of the Kentuckians' hemp. A bewhiskered moralist in a far northern State would one day try to drive the kings of his racing-stable to the plough. A meddling band of fanatical teetotalers would overthrow his merry monarch, King Barleycorn, and the harassed son of the Blue-grass, whether he would or not, must turn to the new pretender who was in the Kentuckians' midst, uninvited and self-throned.

  And with King Tobacco were coming his own human vassals that were to prove a new social discord in the land——up from the river- bottoms of the Ohio and down from the foot-hills of the Cumberland——to plant, worm, tend, and fit those yellow robes to be stuffed into the mouth of the world and spat back again into the helpless face of the earth. And these vassals were supplanting native humanity as the plant was supplanting the native products of the soil. And with them and the new king were due in time a train of evils to that native humanity, creating disaffection, dividing households against themselves, and threatening with ruin the lordly social structure itself.

  But, for all this, the land that early September morning was a land of peace and plenty, and in field, meadow, and woodland the most foreign note of the landscape was a spot of crimson in the crotch of a high staked and ridered fence on the summit of a little hill, and that spot was a little girl. She had on an old- fashioned poke-bonnet of deep pink, her red dress was of old- fashioned homespun, her stockings were of yarn, and her rough shoes should have been on the feet of a boy. Had the vanished forests and cane-brakes of the eighteenth century covered the land, had the wild beasts and wild men come back to roam them, had the little girl's home been a stockade on the edge of the wilderness, she would have fitted perfectly to the time and the scene, as a little daughter of Daniel Boone. As it was, she felt no less foreign than she looked, for the strangeness of the land and of the people still possessed her so that her native shyness had sunk to depths that were painful. She had a new ordeal before her now, for in her sinewy little hands were a paper bag, a first reader, and a spelling-book, and she was on her way to school. Beneath her the white turnpike wound around the hill and down into a little hollow, and on the crest of the next low hill was a little frame house with a belfry on top. Even while she sat there with parted lips, her face in a tense dream and her eyes dark with dread and indecision, the bell from the little school-house clanged through the still air with a sudden, sharp summons that was so peremptory and personal that she was almost startled from her perch. Not daring to loiter any longer, she leaped lightly to the ground and started in breathless haste up and over the hill. As she went down it, she could see horses hitched to the fence around the yard and school-children crowding upon the porch and filing into the door. The last one had gone in before she reached the school-house gate, and she stopped with a thumping heart that quite failed her then and there, for she retreated backward through the gate, to be sure that no one saw her, crept along the stone wall, turned into a lane, and climbed a worm fence into the woods behind the school-house. There she sat down on a log, miserably alone, and over the sunny strange slopes of this new world, on over the foothills, her mind flashed to the big far-away mountains and, dropping her face into her hands, she began to sob out her loneliness and sorrow. The cry did her good, and by and by she lifted her head, rubbed her reddened eyes with the back of one hand, half rose to go to the school-house, and sank helplessly down on the thick grass by the side of the log. The sun beat warmly and soothingly down on her. The grass and even the log against her shoulders were warm and comforting, and the hum of insects about her was so drowsy that she yawned and settled deeper into the grass, and presently she passed into sleep and dreams of Jason. Jason was in the feud. She could see him crouched in some bushes and peering through them on the lookout evidently for some Honeycutt; and slipping up the other side of the hill was a Honeycutt looking for Jason. Somehow she knew it was the Honeycutt who had slain the boy's father, and she saw the man creep through the brush and worm his way on his belly to a stump above where Jason sat. She saw him thrust his Winchester through the leaves, she tried to shriek a warning to Jason, and she awoke so weak with terror that she could hardly scramble to her feet. Just then the air was rent with shrill cries, she saw school-boys piling over a fence and rushing toward her hiding-place, and, her wits yet ungathered, she turned and fled in terror down the hill, nor did she stop until the cries behind her grew faint; and then she was much ashamed of herself. Nobody was in pursuit of her——it was the dream that had frightened her. She could almost step on the head of her own shadow now, and that fact and a pang of hunger told her it was noon. It was noon recess back at the school and those school-boys were on their way to a playground. She had left her lunch at the log where she slept, and so she made her way back to it, just in time to see two boys pounce on the little paper bag lying in the grass. There was no shyness about her then——that bag was hers——and she flashed forward.

  "Gimme that poke!"

  The wrestling stopped and, startled by the cry and the apparition, the two boys fell apart.

  "What?" said the one with the bag in his hand, while the other stared at Mavis with puzzled amazement.

  "Gimme that poke!" blazed the girl, and the boy laughed, for the word has almost passed from the vocabulary of the Blue-grass. He held it high.

  "Jump for it!" he teased.

  "I hain't goin' to jump fer it——hit's mine."

  Her hands clenched and she started slowly toward him.

  "Give her the bag," said the other boy so imperatively that the little girl stopped with a quick and trustful shift of her own burden to him.

  "She's got to jump for it!"

  The other boy smiled, and it strangely seemed to Mavis that she had seen that smile before.

  "Oh, I reckon not," he said quietly, and in a trice the two boys in a close, fierce grapple were rocking before her and the boy with the bag went to the earth first.

  "Gouge him!" shrieked the mountain girl, and she rushed to them while they were struggling, snatched the bag from the loosened fingers, and, seeing the other boys on a run for the scene, fled for the lane. From the other side of the fence she saw the two lads rise, one still smiling, the other crying with anger; the school-bell clanged and she was again alone. Hurriedly she ate the bacon and corn-bread in the bag and then she made her way back along the lane, by the stone wall, through the school-house gate, and gathering her courage with one deep breath, she climbed the steps resolutely and stood before the open door.

  The teacher, a tall man in a long black frock-coat, had his back to her, the room was crowded, and she saw no vacant seat. Every pair of eyes within was raised to her, and instantly she caught another surprised and puzzled stare from the boy who had taken her part a little while before. The teacher, seeing the attention of his pupils fixed somewhere behind him, turned to see the quaint figure, dismayed and helpless, in the doorway, and he went quickly toward her.

  "This way," he said kindly, and pointing to a seat, he turned again to his pupils.

  Still they stared toward the new-comer, and he turned again. The little girl's flushed face was still hidden by her bonnet, but before he reached her to tell her quietly she must take it off, she had seen that all the heads about her were bare and was pulling it off herself——disclosing a riotous mass of black hair, combed straight back from her forehead and gathered into a Psyche knot at the back of her head. Slowly the flush passed, but not for some time did she lift the extraordinary lashes that veiled her eyes to take a furtive glance about her. But, as the pupils bent more to their books, she grew bolder and looked about oftener and keenly, and she saw with her own eyes and in every pair of eyes whose glance she met, how different she was from all the other girls. For it was a look of wonder and amusement that she encountered each time, and sometimes two girls would whisper behind their hands and laugh, or one would nudge her desk-mate to look around at the stranger, so that the flush came back to Mavis's face and stayed there. The tall teacher saw, too, and understood, and, to draw no more attention to her than was necessary, he did not go near her until little recess. As he expected, she did not move from her seat when the other pupils trooped out, and when the room was empty he beckoned her to come to his desk, and in a moment, with her two books clasped in her hands, she stood shyly before him, meeting his kind gray searching eyes with unwavering directness.

  "You were rather late coming to school."

  "I was afeerd." The teacher smiled, for her eyes were fearless.

  "What is your name?"

  "Mavis Hawn."

  Her voice was slow, low, and rich, and in some wonder he half unconsciously repeated the unusual name.

  "Where do you live?"

  "Down the road a piece——'bout a whoop an' a holler."

  "What? Oh, I see."

  He smiled, for she meant to measure distance by sound, and she had used merely a variation of the "far cry" of Elizabethan days.

  "Your father works in tobacco?" She nodded.

  "You come from near the Ohio River?"

  She looked puzzled.

  "I come from the mountains."

  "Oh!"

  He understood now her dress and speech, and he was not surprised at the answer to his next question.

  "I hain't nuver been to school. Pap couldn't spare me."

  "Can you read and write?"

  "No," she said, but she flushed, and he knew straightway the sensitiveness and pride with which he would have to deal.

  "Well," he said kindly, "we will begin now."

  And he took the alphabet and told her the names of several letters and had her try to make them with a lead pencil, which she did with such uncanny seriousness and quickness that the pity of it, that in his own State such intelligence should be going to such broadcast waste for the want of such elemental opportunities, struck him deeply. The general movement to save that waste was only just beginning, and in that movement he meant to play his part. He was glad now to have under his own supervision one of those mountaineers of whom, but for one summer, he had known so little and heard so much——chiefly to their discredit——and he determined then and there to do all he could for her. So he took her back to her seat with a copy-book and pencil and told her to go on with her work, and that he would go to see her father and mother as soon as possible.

  "I hain't got no mammy——hit's a step-mammy," she said, and she spoke of the woman as of a horse or a cow, and again he smiled. Then as he turned away he repeated her name to himself and with a sudden wonder turned quickly back.

  "I used to know some Hawns down in your mountains. A little fellow named Jason Hawn used to go around with me all the time."

  Her eyes filled and then flashed happily.

  "Why, mebbe you air the rock-pecker?"

  "The what?"

  "The jologist. Jason's my cousin. I wasn't thar that summer. Jason's always talkin' 'bout you."

  "Well, well——I guess I am. That is curious."

  "Jason's mammy was a Honeycutt an' she married my daddy an' they run away," she went on eagerly, "an' I had to foller 'em."

  "Where's Jason?" Again her eyes filled.

  "I don't know."

  John Burnham put his hand on her head gently and turned to his desk. He rang the bell and when the pupils trooped back she was hard at work, and she felt proud when she observed several girls looking back to see what she was doing, and again she was mystified that each face showed the same expression of wonder and of something else that curiously displeased her, and she wondered afresh why it was that everything in that strange land held always something that she could never understand. But a disdainful whisper came back to her that explained it all.

  "Why, that new girl is only learning her a-b-c's," said a girl, and her desk-mate turned to her with a quick rebuke.

  "Don't——she'll hear you."

  Mavis caught the latter's eyes that instant, and with a warm glow at her heart looked her gratitude, and then she almost cried her surprise aloud——it was the stranger-girl who had been in the mountains——Marjorie. The girl looked back in a puzzled way, and a moment later Mavis saw her turn to look again. This time the mountain girl answered with a shy smile, and Marjorie knew her, nodded in a gay, friendly way, and bent her head to her book.

  Presently she ran her eyes down the benches where the boys sat, and there was Gray waiting apparently for her to look around, for he too nodded gayly to her, as though he had known her from the start. The teacher saw the exchange of little civilities and he was much puzzled, especially when, the moment school was over, he saw the lad hurry to catch Marjorie, and the two then turn together toward the little stranger. Both thrust out their hands, and the little mountain girl, so unaccustomed to polite formalities, was quite helpless with embarrassment, so the teacher went over to help her out and Gray explained:

  "Marjorie and I stayed with her grandfather, and didn't we have a good time, Marjorie?"

  Marjorie nodded with some hesitation, and Gray went on:

  "How——how is he now?"

  "Grandpap's right peart now."

  "And how's your cousin——Jason?"

  The question sent such a sudden wave of homesickness through Mavis that her answer was choked, and Marjorie understood and put her arm around Mavis's shoulder.

  "You must be lonely up here. Where do you live?" And when she tried to explain Gray broke in.

  "Why, you must be one of our ten——you must live on our farm. Isn't that funny?"

  "And I live further down the road across the pike," said Marjorie.

  "In that great big house in the woods?"

  "Yes," nodded Marjorie, "and you must come to see me."

  Mavis's eyes had the light of gladness in them now, and through them looked a grateful heart. Outside, Gray got Marjorie's pony for her, the two mounted, rode out the gate and went down the pike at a gallop, and Marjorie whirled in her saddle to wave her bonnet back at the little mountaineer. The teacher, who stood near watching them, turned to go back and close up the school-house.

  "I'm coming to see your father, and we'll get some books, and you are going to study so hard that you won't have time to get homesick any more," he said kindly, and Mavis started down the road, climbed the staked and ridered fence, and made her way across the fields. She had been lonely, and now homesickness came back to her worse than ever. She wondered about Jason——where he was and what he was doing and whether she would ever see him again. The memory of her parting with him came back to her——how he looked as she saw him for the last time sitting on his old nag, sturdy and apparently unmoved, and riding out of her sight in just that way; and she heard again his last words as though they were sounding then in her ears:

  "I'm a-goin' to come an' git you——some day."

  Since that day she had heard of him but once, and that was lately, when Arch Hawn had come to see her father and the two had talked a long time. They were all well, Arch said, down in the mountains. Jason had come back from the settlement school. Little Aaron Honeycutt had bantered him in the road and Jason had gone wild. He had galloped down to town, bought a Colt's forty-five and a pint of whiskey, had ridden right up to old Aaron Honeycutt's gate, shot off his pistol, and dared little Aaron to come out and fight. Little Aaron wanted to go, but old Aaron held him back, and Jason sat on his nag at the gate and "cussed out" the whole tribe, and swore "he'd kill every dad-blasted one of 'em if only to git the feller who shot his daddy." Old Aaron had behaved mighty well, and he and old Jason had sent each other word that they would keep both the boys out of the trouble. Then Arch had brought about another truce and little Jason had worked his crop and was making a man of himself. It was Archer Hawn who had insisted that Mavis herself should go to school and had agreed to pay all her expenses, but in spite of her joy at that, she was heart-broken when he was gone, and when she caught her step-mother weeping in the kitchen a vague sympathy had drawn them for the first time a little nearer together.

  From the top of the little hill her new home was visible across a creek and by the edge of a lane. As she crossed a foot-bridge and made her way noiselessly along the dirt road she heard voices around a curve of the lane and she came upon a group of men leaning against a fence. In the midst of them was her father, and they were arguing with him earnestly and he was shaking his head.

  "Them toll-gates hain't a-hurtin' me none," she heard him drawl. "I don't understand this business, an' I hain't goin' to git mixed up in hit."

  Then he saw her coming and he stopped, and the others looked at her uneasily, she thought, as if wondering what she might have heard.

  "Go on home, Mavis," he said shortly, and as she passed on no one spoke until she was out of hearing. Some mischief was afoot, but she was not worried, nor was her interest aroused at all.

  A moment later she could see her step-mother seated on her porch and idling in the warm sun. The new home was a little frame house, neat and well built. There was a good fence around the yard and the garden, and behind the garden was an orchard of peach-trees and apple-trees. The house was guttered and behind the kitchen was a tiny grape-arbor, a hen-house, and a cistern——all strange appurtenances to Mavis. The two spoke only with a meeting of the eyes, and while the woman looked her curiosity she asked no questions, and Mavis volunteered no information.

  "Did you see Steve a-talkin' to some fellers down the road?"

  Mavis nodded.

  "Did ye hear whut they was talkin' about?"

  "Somethin' about the toll-gates."

  A long silence followed.

  "The teacher said he was comin' over to see you and pap."

  "Whut fer?"

  "I dunno."

  After another silence Mavis went on:

  "The teacher is that rock-pecker Jason was always a-talkin' 'bout."

  The woman's interest was aroused now, for she wondered if he were coming over to ask her any troublesome questions.

  "Well, ain't that queer!"

  "An' that boy an' gal who was a-stayin' with grandpap was thar at school too, an' she axed me to come over an' see her." This the step-mother was not surprised to hear, for she knew on whose farm they were living and why they were there, and she had her own reasons for keeping the facts from Mavis.

  "Well, you oughter go."

  "I am a-goin'."

  Mavis missed the mountains miserably when she went to bed that night——missed the gloom and lift of them through her window, and the rolling sweep of the land under the moon looked desolate and lonely and more than ever strange. A loping horse passed on the turnpike, and she could hear it coming on the hard road far away and going far away; then a buggy and then a clattering group of horsemen, and indeed everything heralded its approach at a great distance. She missed the stillness of the hills, for on the night air were the barking of dogs, whinny of horses, lowing of cattle, the song of a night-prowling negro, and now and then the screech of a peacock. She missed Jason wretchedly, too, for there had been so much talk of him during the day, and she went to sleep with her lashes wet with tears. Some time during the night she was awakened by pistol-shots, and her dream of Jason made her think that she was at home again. But no mountains met her startled eyes through the window. Instead a red glare hung above the woods, there was the clatter of hoofs on the pike, and flames shot above the tops of the trees. Nor could it be a forest fire such as was common at home, for the woods were not thick enough. This land, it seemed, had troubles of its own, as did her mountains, but at least folks did not burn folks' houses in the hills.

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