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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter11)

2006-08-29 01:34

  Chapter XI

  The last sunset had been clear and Jack Frost had got busy. All the preceding day the clouds had hung low and kept the air chill so that the night was good for that arch-imp of Satan who has got himself enshrined in the hearts of little children. At dawn Jason saw the robe of pure white which the little magician had spun and drawn close to the breast of the earth. The first light turned it silver and showed it decked with flowers and jewels, that the old mother might mistake it, perhaps, for a wedding-gown instead of a winding-sheet; but the sun, knowing better, lifted, let loose his tiny warriors, and from pure love of beauty smote it with one stroke gold, and the battle ended with the blades of grass and the leaves in their scarlet finery sparkling with the joy of another day's deliverance and the fields grown gray and aged in a single night. Before the fight was quite over that morning, saddle-horses were stepping from big white barns in the land Jason was entering, and being led to old-fashioned stiles; buggies, phaetons, and rock-aways were emerging from turnpike gates; and rabbit-hunters moved, shouting, laughing, running races, singing, past fields sober with autumn, woods dingy with oaks and streaked with the fire of sumac and maple. On each side of the road new hemp lay in shining swaths, while bales of last year's crop were on the way to market along the roads. The farmers were turning over the soil for the autumn sowing of wheat, corn-shucking was over, and ragged darkies were straggling from the fields back to town. From every point the hunters came, turning in where a big square brick house with a Grecian portico stood far back in a wooded yard, with a fish-pond on one side and a great smooth lawn on the other. On the steps between the columns stood Colonel Pendleton and Gray and Marjorie welcoming the guests; the men, sturdy country youths, good types of the beef-eating young English squire——sunburnt fellows with big frames, open faces, fearless eyes, and a manner that was easy, cordial, kindly, independent; the girls midway between the types of brunette and blonde, with a leaning toward the latter type, with hair that had caught the light of the sun, radiant with freshness and good health and strength; round of figure, clear of eye and skin, spirited, soft of voice, and slow of speech. Soon a cavalcade moved through a side-gate of the yard, through a Blue-grass woodland, and into a sweep of stubble and ragweed; and far up the road on top of a little hill the mountain boy stopped his old mare and watched a strange sight in a strange land——a hunt without dog, stick, or gun. A high ringing voice reached his ears clearly, even that far away:

  "Form a line!"

  And the wondering lad saw man and woman aligning themselves like cavalry fifteen feet apart and moving across the field——the men in leggings or high boots, riding with the heel low and the toes turned according to temperament; the girls with a cap, a derby, or a beaver with a white veil, and the lad's eye caught one of them quickly, for a red tam-o'-shanter had slipped from her shining hair and a broad white girth ran around both her saddle and her horse. There was one man on a sorrel mule and he was the host at the big house, for Colonel Pendleton had surrendered every horse he had to a guest. Suddenly there came a yell——the rebel yell——and a horse leaped forward. Other horses leaped too, everybody yelled in answer, and the cavalcade swept forward. There was a massing of horses, the white girth flashing in the midst of the melee, a great crash and much turning, twisting, and sawing of bits, and then all dashed the other way, the white girth in the lead, and the boy's lips fell apart in wonder. A black thoroughbred was making a wide sweep, an iron-gray was cutting in behind, and all were sweeping toward him. Far ahead of them he saw a frightened rabbit streaking through the weeds. As it passed him the lad gave a yell, dug his heels into the old mare, and himself swept down the pike, drawing his revolver and firing as he rode. Five times the pistol spoke to the wondering hunters in pursuit, at the fifth the rabbit tumbled heels over head and a little later the hunters pulled their horses in around a boy holding a rabbit high in one hand, a pistol in the other, and his eager face flushed with pride in his marksmanship and the comradeship of the hunt. But the flush died into quick paleness, so hostile were the faces, so hostile were the voices that assailed him, and he dropped the rabbit quickly and began shoving fresh cartridges into the chambers of his gun.

  "What do you mean, boy," shouted an angry voice, "shooting that rabbit?"

  The boy looked dazed.

  "Why, wasn't you atter him?"

  He looked around and in a moment he knew several of them, but nobody, it was plain, remembered him.

  The girl with the white girth was Marjorie, the boy on the black thoroughbred was Gray, and coming in an awkward gallop on the sorrel mule was Colonel Pendleton. None of these people could mean to do him harm, so Jason dropped his pistol in his holster and, with a curious dignity for so ragged an atom, turned in silence away, and only the girl with the white girth noticed the quiver of his lips and the angry starting of tears.

  As he started to mount the old mare, the excited yells coming from the fields were too much for him, and he climbed back on the fence to watch. The hunters had parted in twain, the black thoroughbred leading one wing, the iron-gray the other——both after a scurrying rabbit. Close behind the black horse was the white girth and close behind was a pony in full run. Under the brow of the hill they swept and parallel with the fence, and as they went by the boy strained eager widening eyes, for on the pony was his cousin Mavis Hawn, bending over her saddle and yelling like mad. This way and that poor Mollie swerved, but every way her big startled eyes turned, that way she saw a huge beast and a yelling demon bearing down on her. Again the horses crashed, the pony in the very midst. Gray threw himself from his saddle and was after her on foot. Two others swung from their saddles, Mollie made several helpless hops, and the three scrambled for her. The riders in front cried for those behind to hold their horses back, but they crowded on and Jason rose upright on the fence to see who should be trampled down. Poor Mollie was quite hemmed in now, there was no way of escape, and instinctively she shrank frightened to the earth. That was the crucial instant, and down went Gray on top of her as though she were a foot-ball, and the quarry was his. Jason saw him give her one blow behind her long ears and then, holding a little puff of down aloft, look about him, past Marjorie to Mavis. A moment later he saw that rabbit's tail pinned to Mavis's cap, and a sudden rage of jealousy nearly shook him from the fence. He was too far away to see Marjorie's smile, but he did see her eyes rove about the field and apparently catch sight of him, and as the rest turned to the hunt she rode straight for him, for she remembered the distress of his face and he looked lonely.

  "Little boy," she called, and the boy stared with amazement and rage, but the joke was too much for him and he laughed scornfully.

  "Little gal," he mimicked, "air you a-talkin' to me?"

  The girl gasped, reddened, lifted her chin haughtily, and raised her riding-whip to whirl away from the rude little stranger, but his steady eyes held hers until a flash of recognition came——and she smiled.

  "Well, I never——Uncle Bob!" she cried excitedly and imperiously, and as the colonel lumbered toward her on his sorrel mount, she called with sparkling eyes, "don't you know him?"

  The puzzled face of the colonel broke into a hearty smile.

  "Well, bless my soul, it's Jason. You've come up to see your folks?"

  And then he explained what Marjorie meant to explain.

  "We're not hunting with guns——we just chase 'em. Hang your artillery on a fence-rail, bring your horse through that gate, and join us."

  He turned and Marjorie, with him, called back over her shoulder: "Hurry up now, Jason."

  Little Jason sat still, but he saw Marjorie ride straight for the pony, he heard her cry to Mavis, saw her wave one hand toward him, and then Mavis rode for him at a gallop, waving her whip to him as she came. The boy gave no answering signal, but sat still, hard- eyed, cool. Before she was within twenty yards of him he had taken in every detail of the changes in her and the level look of his eyes stopped her happy cry, and made her grow quite pale with the old terror of giving him offence. Her hair looked different, her clothes were different, she wore gloves, and she had a stick in one hand with a head like a cane and a loop of leather at the other end. For these drawbacks, the old light in her eyes and face quite failed to make up, for while Jason looked, Mavis was looking, too, and the boy saw her eyes travelling him down from head to foot: somehow he was reminded of the way Marjorie had looked at him back in the mountains and somehow he felt that the change that he resented in Mavis went deeper than her clothes. The morbidly sensitive spirit of the mountaineer in him was hurt, the chasm yawned instead of closing, and all he said shortly was:

  "Whar'd you git them new-fangled things?"

  "Marjorie give 'em to me. She said fer you to bring yo' hoss in—— hit's more fun than I ever knowed in my life up here."

  "Hit is?" he half-sneered. "Well, you git back to yo' high- falutin' friends an' tell 'em I don't hunt nothin' that-a-way."

  "I'll stop right now an' go home with ye. I guess you've come to see yo' mammy."

  "Well, I hain't ridin' aroun' just fer my health exactly."

  He had suddenly risen on the fence as the cries in the field swelled in a chorus. Mavis saw how strong the temptation within him was, and so, when he repeated for her to "go on back," the old habit of obedience turned her, but she knew he would soon follow.

  The field was going mad now, horses were dashing and crashing together, the men were swinging to the ground and were pushed and trampled in a wild clutch for Mollie's long ears, and Jason could see that the contest between them was who should get the most game. The big mule was threshing the weeds like a tornado, and crossing the field at a heavy gallop he stopped suddenly at a ditch, the girth broke, and the colonel went over the long ears. There was a shriek of laughter, in which Jason from his perch joined, as with a bray of freedom the mule made for home. Apparently that field was hunted out now, and when the hunters crossed another pike and went into another field too far away for the boy to see the fun, he mounted his old mare and rode slowly after them. A little later Mavis heard a familiar yell, and Jason flew by her with his pistol flopping on his hip, his hat in his hand, and his face frenzied and gone wild. The thoroughbred passed him like a swallow, but the rabbit twisted back on his trail and Mavis saw Marjorie leap lightly from her saddle, Jason flung himself from his, and then both were hidden by the crush of horses around them, while from the midst rose sharp cries of warning and fear.

  She saw Gray's face white with terror, and then she saw Marjorie picking herself up from the ground and Jason swaying dizzily on his feet with a rabbit in his hand.

  "'Tain't nothin'," he said stoutly, and he grinned his admiration openly for Marjorie, who looked such anxiety for him. "You ain't afeerd o' nothin', air ye, an' I reckon this rabbit tail is a- goin' to you," and he handed it to her and turned to his horse. The boy had jerked Marjorie from under the thoroughbred's hoofs and then gone on recklessly after the rabbit, getting a glancing blow from one of those hoofs himself.

  Marjorie smiled.

  "Thank you, little——man," and Jason grinned again, but his head was dizzy and he did not ride after the crowd.

  "I'm afeerd fer this ole nag," he lied to Colonel Pendleton, for he was faint at the stomach and the world had begun to turn around. Then he made one clutch for the old nag's mane, missed it, and rolled senseless to the ground.

  Not long afterward he opened his eyes to find his head in the colonel's lap, Marjorie bathing his forehead with a wet handkerchief, and Gray near by, still a little pale from remorse for his carelessness and Marjorie's narrow escape, and Mavis the most unconcerned of all——and he was much ashamed. Rudely he brushed Marjorie's consoling hand away and wriggled away from the colonel to his knees.

  "Shucks!" he said, with great disgust.

  The shadows were stretching fast, it was too late to try another field, so back they started through the radiant air, laughing, talking, bantering, living over the incidents of the day, the men with one leg swung for rest over the pommel of their saddles, the girls with habits disordered and torn, hair down, and all tired, but all flushed, clear-eyed, happy. The leaves——russet, gold and crimson——were dropping to the autumn-greening earth, the sunlight was as yellow as the wings of a butterfly, and on the horizon was a faint haze that shadowed the coming Indian summer. But still it was warm enough for a great spread on the lawn, and what a feast for mountain eyes——chicken, turkey, cold ham, pickles, croquettes, creams, jellies, beaten biscuits. And what happy laughter and thoughtful courtesy and mellow kindness——particularly to the little mountain pair, for in the mountains they had given the Pendletons the best they had and now the best was theirs. Inside fires were being lighted in the big fireplaces, and quiet, solid, old-fashioned English comfort everywhere the blaze brought out.

  Already two darky fiddlers were waiting on the back porch for a dram, and when the darkness settled the fiddles were talking old tunes and nimble feet were busy. Little Jason did his wonderful dancing and Gray did his; and round about, the window-seats and the tall columns of the porch heard again from lovers what they had been listening to for so long. At midnight the hunters rode forth again in pairs into the crisp, brilliant air and under the kindly moon, Mavis jogging along beside Jason on Marjorie's pony, for Marjorie would not have it otherwise. No wonder that Mavis loved the land.

  "I jerked the gal outen the way," explained Jason, "'cause she was a gal an' had no business messin' with men folks."

  "Of co'se," Mavis agreed, for she was just as contemptuous as he over the fuss that had been made of the incident.

  "But she ain't afeerd o' nothin'."

  This was a little too much.

  "I ain't nuther."

  "Co'se you ain't."

  There was no credit for Mavis——her courage was a matter of course; but with the stranger-girl, a "furriner"——that was different. There was silence for a while.

  "Wasn't it lots o' fun, Jasie?"

  "Shore!" was the absent-minded answer, for Jason was looking at the strangeness of the night. It was curious not to see the big bulks of the mountains and to see so many stars. In the mountains he had to look straight up to see stars at all and now they hung almost to the level of his eyes.

  "How's the folks?" asked Mavis.

  "Stirrin'. Air ye goin' to school up here?"

  "Yes, an' who you reckon the school-teacher is?"

  Jason shook his head.

  "The jologist."

  "Well, by Heck."

  "An' he's always axin' me about you an' if you air goin' to school."

  For a while more they rode in silence.

  "I went to that new furrin school down in the mountains," yawned the boy, "fer 'bout two hours. They're gittin' too high-falutin' to suit me. They tried to git me to wear gal's stockin's like they do up here an' I jes' laughed at 'em. Then they tried to git me to make up beds an' I tol' 'em I wasn't goin' to wear gal's clothes ner do a gal's work, an' so I run away."

  He did not tell his reason for leaving the mountains altogether, for Mavis, too, was a girl, and he did not confide in women——not yet.

  But the girl was woman enough to remember that the last time she had seen him he had said that he was going to come for her some day. There was no sign of that resolution, however, in either his manner or his words now, and for some reason she was rather glad.

  "Every boy wears clothes like that up here. They calls 'em knickerbockers."

  "Huh!" grunted Jason. "Hit sounds like 'em."

  "Air ye still shootin' at that ole tree?"

  "Yep, an' I kin hit the belly-band two shots out o' three."

  Mavis raised her dark eyes with a look of apprehension, for she knew what that meant; when he could hit it three times running he was going after the man who had killed his father. But she asked no more questions, for while the boy could not forbear to boast about his marksmanship, further information was beyond her sphere and she knew it.

  When they came to the lane leading to her home, Jason turned down it of his own accord.

  "How'd you know whar we live?"

  "I was here this mornin' an' I seed my mammy. Yo' daddy wasn't thar."

  Mavis smiled silently to herself; he had found out thus where she was and he had followed her. At the little stable Jason unsaddled the horses and turned both out in the yard while Mavis went within, and Steve Hawn appeared at the door in his underclothes when Jason stepped upon the porch.

  "Hello, Jason!"

  "Hello, Steve!" answered the boy, but they did not shake hands, not because of the hard feeling between them, but because it was not mountain custom.

  "Come on in an' lay down."

  Mavis had gone upstairs, but she could hear the voices below her. If Mavis had been hesitant about asking questions, as had been the boy's mother as well, Steve was not. "Whut'd you come up here fer?"

  "Same reason as you once left the mountains——I got inter trouble."

  Steve was startled and he frowned, but the boy gazed coolly back into his angry eyes.

  "Whut kind o' trouble?"

  "Same as you——I shot a feller," said the boy imperturbably.

  Little Mavis heard a groan from her step-mother, an angry oath from her father, and a curious pang of horror pierced her.

  Silence followed below and the girl lay awake and trembling in her bed.

  "Who was it?" Steve asked at last.

  "That's my business," said little Jason. The silence was broken no more, and Mavis lay with new thoughts and feelings racking her brain and her heart. Once she had driven to town with Marjorie and Gray, and a man had come to the carriage and cheerily shaken hands with them both. After he was gone Gray looked very grave and Marjorie was half unconsciously wiping her right hand with her handkerchief.

  "He killed a man," was Marjorie's horrified whisper of explanation, and now if they should hear what she had heard they would feel the same way toward her own cousin, Jason Hawn. She had never had such a feeling in the mountains, but she had it now, and she wondered whether she could ever be quite the same toward Jason again.

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