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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter10)

2006-08-29 01:34

  Chapter X

  On the top of a bushy foot-hill the old nag stopped, lifted her head, and threw her ears forward as though to gaze, like any traveller to a strange land, upon the rolling expanse beneath, and the lad on her back voiced her surprise and his own with a long, low whistle of amazement. He folded his hands on the pommel of his saddle and the two searched the plains below long and hard, for neither knew so much level land was spread out anywhere on the face of the earth. The lad had a huge pistol buckled around him; he looked half dead with sleeplessness and the old nag was weary and sore, for Jason was in flight from trouble back in those hills. He had kept his promise to his grandfather that summer, as little Aaron Honeycutt had kept his. Neither had taken part in the feud, and even after the truce came, each had kept out of the other's way. When Jason's corn was gathered there was nothing for him to do and the lad had grown restless. While roaming the woods one day, a pheasant had hurtled over his head. He had followed it, sighted it, and was sinking down behind a bowlder to get a rest for his pistol when the voices of two Honeycutts who had met in the road just under him stopped his finger on the trigger.

  "That boy's a-goin' to bust loose some day," said one voice. "I've heerd him a-shootin' at a tree every day for a month up thar above his corn-field."

  "Oh, no, he ain't," said the other. "He's just gittin' ready fer the man who shot his daddy."

  "Well, who the hell was the feller?"

  The other man laughed, lowered his voice, and the heart of the listening lad thumped painfully against the bowlder under him.

  "Well, I hain't nuver told hit afore, but I seed with my own eyes a feller sneakin' outen the bushes ten minutes atter the shot was fired, an' hit was Babe Honeycutt."

  A low whistle followed and the two rode on. The pheasant squatted to his limb undisturbed, and the lad lay gripping the bowlder with both hands. He rose presently, his face sick but resolute, slipped down into the road, and, swaying his head with rage, started up the hill toward the Honeycutt cove. On top of the hill the road made a sharp curve and around that curve, as fate would have it, slouched the giant figure of his mother's brother. Babe shouted pleasantly, stopped in sheer amazement when he saw Jason whip his revolver from his holster, and, with no movement to draw his own, leaped for the bushes. Coolly the lad levelled, and when his pistol spoke, Babe's mighty arms flew above his head and the boy heard his heavy body crash down into the undergrowth. In the terrible stillness that followed the boy stood shaking in his tracks——stood until he heard the clatter of horses' hoofs in the creek-bed far below. The two Honeycutts had heard the shot, they were coming back to see what the matter was, and Jason sped as if winged back down the creek. He had broken the truce, his grandfather would be in a rage, the Honeycutts would be after him, and those hills were no place for him. So all that day and through all that night he fled for the big settlements of the Blue-grass and but half consciously toward his mother and Mavis Hawn. The fact that Babe was his mother's brother weighed on his mind but little, for the webs of kinship get strangely tangled in a mountain feud and his mother could not and would not blame him. Nor was there remorse or even regret in his heart, but rather the peace of an oath fulfilled——a duty done.

  The sun was just coming up over the great black bulks which had given the boy forth that morning to a new world. Back there its mighty rays were shattered against them, and routed by their shadows had fought helplessly on against the gloom of deep ravines——those fortresses of perpetual night——but, once they cleared the eminence where Jason sat, the golden arrows took level flight, it seemed, for the very end of the world. This was the land of the Blue-grass——the home of the rock-pecker, home of the men who had robbed him of his land, the refuge to his Cousin Steve, his mother, and little Mavis, and now their home. He could see no end of the land, for on and on it rolled, and on and on as far as it rolled were the low woodlands, the fields of cut corn—— more corn than he knew the whole world held——and pastures and sheep and cattle and horses, and houses and white fences and big white barns. Little Jason gazed but he could not get his fill. Perhaps the old nag, too, knew those distant fields for corn, for with a whisk of her stubby tail she started of her own accord before the lad could dig his bare heels into her bony sides, and went slowly down. The log cabins had disappeared one by one, and most of the houses he now saw were framed. One, however, a relic of pioneer times, was of stone, and at that the boy looked curiously. Several were of red brick and one had a massive portico with great towering columns, and at that he looked more curiously still. Darkies were at work in the fields. He had seen only two or three in his life, he did not know there were so many in the world as he saw that morning, and now his skin ruffled with some antagonism ages deep. Everybody he met in the road or passed working in the fields gave him a nod and looked curiously at his big pistol, but nobody asked him his name or where he was going or what his business was; at that he wondered, for everybody in the mountains asked those questions of the stranger, and he had all the lies he meant to tell, ready for any emergency to cover his tracks from any possible pursuers. By and by he came to a road that stunned him. It was level and smooth and made, as he saw, of rocks pounded fine, and the old nag lifted her feet and put them down gingerly. And this road never stopped, and there was no more dirt road at all. By and by he noticed running parallel with the turnpike two shining lines of iron, and his curiosity so got the better of him that he finally got off his old nag and climbed the fence to get a better look at them. They were about four feet apart, fastened to thick pieces of timber, and they, too, like everything else, ran on and on, and he mounted and rode along them much puzzled. Presently far ahead of him there was a sudden, unearthly shriek, the rumbling sound of a coming storm, rolling black smoke beyond the crest of a little hill, and a swift huge mass swept into sight and, with another fearful blast, bore straight at him. The old nag snorted with terror, and in terror dashed up the hill, while the boy lay back and pulled helplessly on the reins. When he got her halted the thing had disappeared, and both boy and beast turned heads toward the still terrible sounds of its going. It was the first time either had ever seen a railroad train, and the lad, with a sickly smile that even he had shared the old nag's terror, got her back into the road. At the gate sat a farmer in his wagon and he was smiling.

  "Did she come purty near throwin' you?"

  "Huh!" grunted Jason contemptuously. "Whut was that?"

  The farmer looked incredulous, but the lad was serious.

  "That was a railroad train."

  "Danged if I didn't think hit was a saw-mill comin' atter me."

  The farmer laughed and looked as though he were going to ask questions, but he clucked to his horses and drove on, and Jason then and there swore a mighty oath to himself never again to be surprised by anything else he might see in this new land. All that day he rode slowly, giving his old nag two hours' rest at noon, and long before sundown he pulled up before a house in a cross- roads settlement, for the mountaineer does not travel much after nightfall.

  "I want to git to stay all night," he said.

  The man smiled and understood, for no mountaineer's door is ever closed to the passing stranger and he cannot understand that any door can be closed to him. Jason told the truth that night, for he had to ask questions himself——he was on his way to see his mother and his step-father and his cousin, who had moved down from the mountains, and to his great satisfaction he learned that it was a ride of but three hours more to Colonel Pendleton's.

  When his host showed him to his room, the boy examined his pistol with such care while he was unbuckling it, that, looking up, he found a half-smile, half-frown, and no little suspicion, in his host's face; but he made no explanation, and he slept that night with one ear open, for he was not sure yet that no Honeycutt might be following him.

  Toward morning he sprang from bed wide-awake, alert, caught up his pistol and crept to the window. Two horsemen were at the gate. The door opened below him, his host went out, and the three talked in whispers for a while. Then the horsemen rode away, his host came back into the house, and all was still again. For half an hour the boy waited, his every nerve alive with suspicion. Then he quietly dressed, left half a dollar on the washstand, crept stealthily down the stairs and out to the stable, and was soon pushing his old nag at a weary gallop through the dark.

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