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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter28)

2006-08-29 01:39

  Chapter XXVIII

  On through the snowy mountains Jason went, keeping fearlessly now to the open road, and telling the same story to the same question that was always looked, even when not asked, by every soul with whom he passed a word: he had gone to the capital when the mountain people went down, he had been left behind, and, having no money, was obliged to make his way back home on foot. Always he was plied with questions, but news of the death of the autocrat had not yet penetrated that far. Always he was gladly given food and lodging, and sometimes his host or some horseman, overtaking him, would take him up behind and save him many a weary mile. Boldly he went until one morning he stood on the icy, glittering crest of Pine Mountain and looked down a white wooded ravine to the frozen Cumberland locked motionless in the valley below. He could see the mouth of Hawn Branch and the mouth of Honeycutt Creek——could see the spur, the neck of which once separated Mavis's home from his——and with a joyful throb and a quickly following pang he plunged down the ravine. Ahead of him was the house of a Honeycutt and he had no fear, but as he swiftly approached it along the river road, he saw two men, strangers, appear on the porch and instinctively he scudded noiselessly behind a great clump of evergreen rhododendron and lay flat to the frozen earth. A moment later they rode by him at a walk and talking in low, earnest tones.

  "He's sure to come back here," said one, "and it won't be long before some Honeycutt will give him away. This peace business ain't skin-deep and a five-dollar bill will do the trick for us and I'll find the right man in twenty-four hours."

  The other man grunted an assent and the two rode on. Already they were after Jason; they had guessed where he would go, and the boy knew that what he had heard from these men was true. When he rose now he kept out of the road and skirted his way along the white flanks of the hills. Passing high up the spur above Hawn Branch, he could see his grandfather's house. A horse was hitched to the fence and a man was walking toward the porch and the lad wondered if that stranger, too, could be on his trail. On upward he went until just below him he could see the old circuit rider's cabin under a snow-laden pine, and all up and down the Hawn Creek were signs of activity from the outside world. Already he had watched engineers mapping out the line of railway up the river. He had seen the coming of the railroad darkies who lived in shacks like cave-men, who were little above brutes and driven like slaves by rough men in blue woollen shirts and high-laced boots. And now he saw that old Morton Sanders' engineers had mapped out a line up the creek of his fathers; that the darkies had graded it and their wretched shacks were sagging drunkenly here and there from the hill-sides. Around the ravine the boy curved toward the neck of the dividing spur and half-unconsciously toward the little creek where he had uncovered his big vein of coal, and there where with hand, foot, and pick he had toiled so long was a black tunnel boring into the very spot, with supporting columns of wood and a great pile of coal at its gaping mouth. The robbery was under way and the boy looked on with fierce eyes at the three begrimed and coal-blackened darkies hugging a little fire near by. Cautiously he backed away and slipped on down to a point where he could see his mother's old home and Steve Hawn's, and there he almost groaned. One was desolate, deserted, the door swinging from one hinge, the chimney fallen, every paling of the fence gone and the roof of the little barn caved in. Smoke was coming from Steve Hawn's chimney, and in the porch were two or three slatternly negro women. The boy knew the low, sinister meaning of their presence on public works; and these blacks ate, slept, and plied their trade in the home of Mavis Hawn! All the old rebellion and rage of his early years came back to him and boiled the more fiercely that his mother's home could never be hers, nor Mavis's hers——for a twofold reason now——again. It was nearing noon and the boy's hunger was a keen pain. Rapidly he went down the crest of the spur until his grandfather's house was visible beneath him. The horse at the front fence was gone, but as he slipped toward the rear of the house he looked into the stable to make sure that the horse was not there. And then a moment later he reached the back porch and noiselessly opened the door——so noiselessly that the old man sitting in front of the fire did not hear.

  "Grandpap," he called tremulously.

  The old man started and turned his great shaggy head. He said nothing, but it seemed to the boy that from under his bushy brows a flash of lightning was searching him from head to foot.

  "Well," he rumbled scathingly, "you've been a-playin' hell, hain't ye? I mought 'a' knowed whut would happen with Honeycutts a- leadin' that gang. I tol' 'em to go up thar an' fight open——man to man. They don't know nothin' but way-layin'. A thousand of 'em shootin' one pore man in the back! Whut've I been tryin' to l'arn ye since you was a baby? God knows I wanted him killed. Why," thundered the old man savagely, "didn't you kill him face to face?"

  The boy's chin had gone up proudly while the old man talked and now there was a lightning-flash in his own eyes.

  "I tried to git him face to face fer three days. I knowed he had a gun. I was aimin' to give him a chance fer his life. But seemed like thar wasn't no other——"

  "Stop!" thundered the old man again, "don't you say a word."

  There was a loud "Hello" at the gate.

  "Thar they air now," said the old man with a break in his voice, and as he rose from his chair he said sternly: "An' stay right where you air."

  Through the window the boy saw the two horsemen who had passed him in the road that morning. His eyes grew wild and he began to tremble violently, but he stood still. The old man went to the door.

  "Hyeh he is, men," he shouted; "come in hyeh an' git him."

  Then he turned to the boy.

  "You air goin' back thar an' stand yore trial like a man."

  The boy leaped wildly for the door, but the old man caught him and with one hand held him as though he were a child, and thus the two astonished detectives from the Blue-grass found them, and they gaped at the mystery, for they knew the kinship of the two. One pulled from his pocket a pair of handcuffs, and old Jason glared at him with contempt.

  "Don't you put them things on this boy——he's my grandson. An', anyhow, ef you two full-grown men can't handle a boy without 'em I'll go 'long with you myself."

  Shamed, the man put the irons back in his pocket, and the other one started to speak but stopped. The old man turned hospitably toward his unwelcome guests.

  "I reckon all o' ye want a bite to eat afore ye start. Mammy!"

  The door to the kitchen opened and the aged grandmother halted there, peering through brass-rimmed spectacles at her husband and the two men, and catching sight last of little Jason standing in the corner——trapped, white-faced, silent. Instantly she caught the meaning of the scene, and with a little cry she tottered over to the boy and putting both her hands on his breast began to pat him gently. Then, still helplessly patting him with one hand, she turned to her husband.

  "You hain't goin' to give the boy up, Jason?" she asked plaintively, and the old man swerved his face aside and nodded.

  "Git up somethin' to eat, mammy," he said with rough gentleness, and without another look or word she turned with her apron at her eyes to the kitchen door. The old man glared out the window, the boy sank on a chair at the corner of the fireplace, and in the face of one of the men there was sympathy. The other, shifty of eyes and crafty of face, spoke harshly.

  "How much o' this reward do you want?"

  Old Jason wheeled and the other man cried sternly:

  "Shut up, you fool!"

  "You lop-yeared rattlesnake!" began old Jason, and with a contemptuous gesture dismissed him. "How much is that reward?"

  The other man hesitated, and then with the thought that the fact would soon be world-known answered promptly:

  "For the capture and conviction of the murderer——one hundred thousand dollars."

  The old man gasped at the amazing sum; his face worked suddenly with convulsive rage and calmed in a sudden way that made the watching boy know that something was going to happen. Quietly old Jason walked over to the fire and stood with his back to it. He pulled out his pipe, filled it, and turned again to the mantel- piece as though to reach for a match, but instead whipped two big revolvers from it and wheeled.

  "Hands up, men!" he said quietly. For a moment the two were paralyzed, but the thick-set man, whose instincts were quicker, obeyed slowly. The other one started to laugh.

  "Up!" called the old man sternly, levelling one pistol, and the laugh stopped, the man's face paled, and his hands flew high.

  "Git their guns fer a minute, Jasie, an' put em' up hyeh on the mantel. A hundred thousand dollars is a leetle too much."

  The kitchen door opened and again the old woman peered through her spectacles within.

  "I knowed you wouldn't do it, pap," she said. "Dinner's ready—— come on in now, men, an' git a bite to eat."

  The thin man's shifty eyes roved to his companion, who had almost begun to smile and who muttered to himself as he rose:

  "Well, by God!"

  In utter silence the meal went through, except that the old man, with his pistols crossed in his lap, kept urging his guests to the full of their appetites. Jason ate like a wolf.

  "Git a poke, mammy," said old Jason when the boy dropped knife and fork, "an' fill it full o' victuals."

  And still with a smile the thick-set man watched her gather food from the table, put it in a paper sack, and hand it to the boy.

  "Now git, Jasie——these men air goin' to stay hyeh with me fer' bout an hour, an' then they can go atter ye ef they think they can ketch ye."

  With no word at all even of good-by, little Jason noiselessly disappeared. A few minutes later, sitting in front of the fire with his pistols still in his lap, old Jason Hawn explained:

  "Fer a mule, a Winchester, and a hundred dollars I can git most any man in this country killed. Fer a thousand I reckon I could git hit proved that I had stole a side o' bacon or a hoss. Fer a hundred thousand I could git hit proved that the President of these United States killed that feller——an' human natur' is about the same, I reckon, ever'whar. You don't git no grandson o' mine when thar's a bunch o' greenbacks like that tied to the rope that's a-pinin' to hang him."

  An hour later he told his guests that they could be on their way, though he'd be mighty glad to have 'em stay all night——and they went, both chagrined, the thin one raging within but obedient and respectful without, while the other, chuckling at his companion's discomfiture and no little at his own, watched with a smile the old fellow's method of speeding his parting guests.

  "Git on yo' hosses, men," he suggested, and when the two stepped from the porch he replaced his own guns on the mantel and followed them with both of their guns in one hand and a Winchester in the other. While they were mounting he walked to the corner of the yard, laid both their pistols on the fence, walked back to the porch, and stood there with his Winchester in the hollow of his arm.

  "Ride by thar, men, and git yo' guns; an' I reckon," he suggested casually but convincingly, "when you pick 'em up you better not even look back——nary one O' ye."

  "Can you beat it?" murmured the quiet man, while the other snarled helplessly.

  "An' when you git down to town you can tell the sheriff. He's a Honeycutt, an' he won't come atter me, but I'll go down thar to him an' pay my leetle fine."

  Again the man said:

  "Well, by God!"

  And as the two rode on, the old fellow's voice followed them:

  "Come ag'in, men——I wish ye both well."

  Two nights later St. Hilda, reading by her fire, heard a tap on her window-pane, and, looking up, saw Jason's pale face outside. She ran to the door, and the boy stumbled wearily toward the threshold and stopped with a look of fear and piteous appeal. She stretched out her arms to him, and, broken at last, the boy sank at her feet, and, with his head in her lap, sobbed out of his heart the truth.

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