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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter35)

2006-08-29 01:42

  Chapter XXXV

  Once more, on his way for his last year at college, Jason Hawn had stepped into the chill morning air at the railway junction, on the edge of the Blue-grass. Again a faint light was showing in the east, and cocks were crowing from a low sea of mist that lay motionless over the land, but this time the darky porter reached without hesitation for his bag and led him to the porch of the hotel, where he sat waiting for breakfast. Once more at sunrise he sped through the breaking mist and high over the yellow Kentucky River, but there was no pang of homesickness when he looked down upon it now. Again fields of grass and gram, grazing horses and cattle, fences, houses, barns reeled past his window, and once more Steve Hawn met him at the station in the same old rattletrap buggy, and again stared at him long and hard.

  "Ain't much like the leetle feller I met here three year ago——air ye?"

  Steve was unshaven and his stubbly, thick, black beard emphasized the sickly touch of prison pallor that was still on his face. His eyes had a new, wild, furtive look, and his mouth was cruel and bitter. Again each side of the street was lined with big wagons loaded with tobacco and covered with cotton cloth. Steve pointed to them.

  "Rickolect whut I tol' you about hell a-comin' about that terbaccer?"

  Jason nodded.

  "Well, hit's come." His tone was ominous, personal, and disturbed the boy.

  "Look here, Steve," he said earnestly, "haven't you had enough now? Ain't you goin' to settle down and behave yourself?"

  The man's face took on the snarl of a vicious dog.

  "No, by God!——I hain't. The trouble's on me right now. Colonel Pendleton hain't treated me right——he cheated me out——"

  Steve got no further; the boy turned squarely in the buggy and his eyes blazed.

  "That's a lie. I don't know anything about it, but I know it's a lie."

  Steve, too, turned furious, but he had gone too far, and had counted too much on kinship, so he controlled himself, and with vicious cunning whipped about.

  "Well," he said in an injured tone, "I mought be mistaken. We'll see——we'll see."

  Jason had not asked about his mother, and he did not ask now, for Steve's manner worried him and made him apprehensive. He answered the man's questions about the mountains shortly, and with diabolical keenness Steve began to probe old wounds.

  "I reckon," he said sympathetically, "you hain't found no way yit o' gittin' yo' land back?"

  "No."

  "Ner who shot yo' pap?"

  "No."

  "Well, I hear as how Colonel Pendleton owns a lot in that company that's diggin' out yo' coal. Mebbe you might git it back from him."

  Jason made no answer, for his heart was sinking with every thought of his mother and the further trouble Steve seemed bound to make. Martha Hawn was standing in her porch with one hand above her eyes when they drove into the mouth of the lane. She came down to the gate, and Jason put his arms around her and kissed her; and when he saw the tears start in her eyes he kissed her again while Steve stared, surprised and uncomprehending. Again that afternoon Jason wandered aimlessly into the blue-grass fields, and again his feet led him to the knoll whence he could see the twin houses of the Pendletons bathed in the yellow sunlight, and their own proud atmosphere of untroubled calm. And again, even, he saw Marjorie galloping across the fields, and while he knew the distressful anxiety in one of the households, he little guessed the incipient storm that imperious young woman was at that moment carrying within her own breast from the other. For Marjorie missed Gray; she was lonely and she was bored; she had heard that Jason had been home several days; she was irritated that he had not been to see her, nor had sent her any message, and just now what she was going to do, she did not exactly know or care. Half an hour later he saw her again, coming back at a gallop along the turnpike, and seeing him, she pulled in and waved her whip. Jason took off his hat, waved it in answer, and kept on, whereat imperious Marjorie wheeled her horse through a gate into the next field and thundered across it and up the slope toward him. Jason stood hat in hand—— embarrassed, irresolute, pale. When she pulled in, he walked forward to take her outstretched gloved hand, and when he looked up into her spirited face and challenging eyes, a great calm came suddenly over him, and from it emerged his own dominant spirit which the girl instantly felt. She had meant to tease, badger, upbraid, domineer over him, but the volley of reproachful questions that were on her petulant red lips dwindled lamely to one:

  "How's Mavis, Jason?"

  "She's well as common."

  "You didn't see Gray?"

  "No."

  "I got a letter from him yesterday. He's living right above Mavis. He says she is more beautiful than ever, and he's already crazy about his life down there——and the mountains."

  "I'm mighty glad."

  She turned to go, and the boy walked down the hill to open the gate for her——and sidewise Marjorie scrutinized him. Jason had grown taller, darker, his hair was longer, his clothes were worn and rather shabby, the atmosphere of the hills still invested him, and he was more like the Jason she had first seen, so that the memories of childhood were awakened in the girl and she softened toward him. When she passed through the gate and turned her horse toward him again, the boy folded his arms over the gate, and his sunburnt hands showed to Marjorie's eyes the ravages of hard work.

  "Why haven't you been over to see me, Jason?" she asked gently.

  "I just got back this mornin'."

  "Why, Gray wrote you left home several days ago."

  "I did——but I stopped on the way to visit some kinfolks."

  "Oh. Well, aren't you coming? I'm lonesome, and I guess you will be too——without Mavis."

  "I won't have time to get lonesome."

  The girl smiled.

  "That's ungracious——but I want you to take the time."

  The boy looked at her; since his trial he had hardly spoken to her, and had rarely seen her. Somehow he had come to regard his presence at Colonel Pendleton's the following Christmas night as but a generous impulse on their part that was to end then and there. He had kept away from Marjorie thereafter, and if he was not to keep away now, he must make matters very clear.

  "Maybe your mother won't like it," he said gravely. "I'm a jail- bird."

  "Don't, Jason," she said, shocked by his frankness; "you couldn't help that. I want you to come."

  Jason was reddening with embarrassment now, but he had to get out what had been so long on his mind.

  "I'm comin' once anyhow. I know what she did for me and I'm comin' to thank her for doin' it."

  Marjorie was surprised and again she smiled.

  "Well, she won't like that, Jason," she said, and the boy, not misunderstanding, smiled too.

  "I'm comin'."

  Marjorie turned her horse.

  "I hope I'll be at home."

  Her mood had turned to coquetry again. Jason had meant to tell her that he knew she herself had been behind her mother's kindness toward him, but a sudden delicacy forbade, and to her change of mood he answered:

  "You will be——when I come."

  This was a new deftness for Jason, and a little flush of pleasure came to the girl's cheeks and a little seriousness to her eyes.

  "Well, you are mighty nice, Jason——good-by."

  "Good-by," said the boy soberly.

  At her own gate the girl turned to look back, but Jason was striding across the fields. She turned again on the slope of the hill but Jason was still striding on. She watched him until he had disappeared, but he did not turn to look and her heart felt a little hurt. She was very quiet that night, so quiet that she caught a concerned look in her mother's eyes, and when she had gone to her room her mother came in and found her in a stream of moonlight at her window. And when Mrs. Pendleton silently kissed her, she broke into tears.

  "I'm lonely, mother," she sobbed; "I'm so lonely."

  A week later Jason sat on the porch one night after supper and his mother came to the doorway.

  "I forgot to tell ye, Jason, that Marjorie Pendleton rid over here the day you got here an' axed if you'd come home."

  "I saw her down the pike that day," said Jason, not showing the surprise he felt. Steve Hawn, coming around the corner of the house, heard them both and on his face was a malicious grin.

  "Down the pike," he repeated. "I seed ye both a-talkin', up thar at the edge of the woods. She looked back at ye twice, but you wouldn't take no notice. Now that Gray ain't hyeh I reckon you mought——"

  The boy's protest, hoarse and inarticulate, stopped Steve, who dropped his bantering tone and turned serious.

  "Now looky here, Jason, yo' uncle Arch has tol' me about Gray and Mavis already up that in the mountains, an' I see what's comin' down here fer you. You an' Gray ought to have more sense——gittin' into such trouble——"

  "Trouble!" cried the boy.

  "Yes, I know," Steve answered. "Hit is funny fer me to be talkin' about trouble. I was born to it, as the circuit rider says, as the sparks fly upward. That ain't no hope fer me, but you——"

  The boy rose impatiently but curiously shaken by such words and so strange a tone from his step-father. He was still shaken when he climbed to Mavis's room and was looking out of her window, and that turned his thoughts to her and to Gray in the hills. What was the trouble that Steve had already heard about Mavis and Gray, and what the trouble at which Steve had hinted——for him? Once before Steve had dropped a bit of news, also gathered from Arch Hawn, that during the truce in the mountains little Aaron Honeycutt had developed a wild passion for Mavis, but at that absurdity Jason had only laughed. Still the customs of the Blue-grass and the hills were widely divergent, and if Gray, only out of loneliness, were much with Mavis, only one interpretation was possible to the Hawns and Honeycutts, just as only one interpretation had been possible for Steve with reference to Marjorie and himself, and Steve's interpretation he contemptuously dismissed. His grandfather might make trouble for Gray, or Gray and little Aaron might clash. He would like to warn Gray, and yet even with that wish in his mind a little flame of jealousy was already licking at his heart, though already that heart was thumping at the bid of Marjorie. Impatiently he began to wonder at the perverse waywardness of his own soul, and without undressing he sat at the window——restless, sleepless, and helpless against his warring self——sat until the shadows of the night began to sweep after the light of the sinking moon. When he rose finally, he thought he saw a dim figure moving around the corner of the barn. He rubbed his eyes to make sure, and then picking up his pistol he slipped down the stairs and out the side door, taking care not to awaken his mother and Steve. When he peered forth from the corner of the house, Steve's chestnut gelding was outside the barn and somebody was saddling him. Some negro doubtless was stealing him out for a ride, as was not unusual in that land, and that negro Jason meant to scare half to death. Noiselessly the boy reached the hen-house, and when he peered around that he saw to his bewilderment that the thief was Steve. Once more Steve went into the barn, and this time when he come out he began to fumble about his forehead with both hands, and a moment later Jason saw him move toward the gate, masked and armed. A long shrill whistle came from the turnpike and he heard Steve start into a gallop down the lane.

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