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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter13)

2006-08-29 01:35

  Chapter XIII

  Slowly the lad rode westward, for the reason that he was not yet quite ready to pass between those two big-pillared houses again, and because just then whatever his way——no matter. His anger was all gone now and his brain was clear, but he was bewildered. Throughout the day he had done nothing that he thought was wrong, and yet throughout the day he had done nothing that seemed to be right. This land was not for him——he did not understand the ways of it and the people, and they did not understand him. Even the rock-pecker had gone back on him, and though that hurt him deeply, the lad loyally knew that the school-master must have his own good reasons. The memory of Marjorie's look still hurt, and somehow he felt that even Mavis was vaguely on their side against him, and of a sudden the pang of loneliness that Marjorie saw in his eyes so pierced him that he pulled his old nag in and stood motionless in the middle of the road. The sky was overcast and the air was bitter and chill; through the gray curtain that hung to the rim of the earth, the low sun swung like a cooling ball of fire and under it the gray fields stretched with such desolation for him that he dared ride no farther into them. And then as the lad looked across the level stillness that encircled him, the mountains loomed suddenly from it——big, still, peaceful, beckoning——and made him faint with homesickness. Those mountains were behind him——his mountains and his home that was his no longer——but, after all, any home back there was his, and that thought so filled his heart with a rush of gladness that with one long breath of exultation he turned in his saddle to face those distant unseen hills, and the old mare, following the movement of his body, turned too, as though she, too, suddenly wanted to go home. The chill air actually seemed to grow warmer as he trotted back, the fields looked less desolate, and then across them he saw flashing toward him the hostile fire of a scarlet tam-o'-shanter. He was nearing the yard gate of the big house on the right, and from the other big house on the left the spot of shaking crimson was galloping toward the turnpike. He could wait until Marjorie crossed the road ahead of him, or he could gallop ahead and pass before she could reach the gate, but his sullen pride forbade either course, and so he rode straight on, and his dogged eyes met hers as she swung the gate to and turned her pony across the road. Marjorie flushed, her lips half parted to speak, and Jason sullenly drew in, but as she said nothing, he clucked and dug his heels viciously into the old mare's sides.

  Then the little girl raised one hand to check him and spoke hurriedly:

  "Jason, we've been talking about you, and my Uncle Bob says you kept me from getting killed."

  Jason stared.

  "And the school-teacher says we don't understand you——you people down in the mountains——and that we mustn't blame you for——" she paused in helpless embarrassment, for still the mountain boy stared.

  "You know," she went on finally, "boys here don't do things that you boys do down there——"

  She stopped again, the tears started suddenly in her earnest eyes, and a miracle happened to little Jason. Something quite new surged within him, his own eyes swam suddenly, and he cleared his throat huskily.

  "I hain't a-goin' to bother you folks no more," he said, and he tried to be surly, but couldn't. "I'm a-goin' away." The little girl's tears ceased.

  "I'm sorry," she said. "I wish you'd stay here and go to school. The school-teacher said he wanted you to do that, and he says such nice things about you, and so does my Uncle Bob, and Gray is sorry, and he says he is coming over to see you to-morrow."

  "I'm a-goin' home," repeated Jason stubbornly.

  "Home?" repeated the girl, and her tone did what her look had done a moment before, for she knew he had no home, and again the lad was filled with a throbbing uneasiness. Her eyes dropped to her pony's mane, and in a moment more she looked up with shy earnestness.

  "Will you do something for me?"

  Again Jason started and of its own accord his tongue spoke words that to his own ears were very strange.

  "Thar hain't nothin' I won't do fer ye," he said, and his sturdy sincerity curiously disturbed Marjorie in turn, so that her flush came back, and she went on with slow hesitation and with her eyes again fixed on her pony's neck.

  "I want you to promise me not——not to shoot anybody——unless you have to in self-defence——and never to take another drink until—— until you see me again."

  She could not have bewildered the boy more had she asked him never to go barefoot again, but his eyes were solemn when she looked up and solemnly he nodded assent.

  "I give ye my hand."

  The words were not literal, but merely the way the mountaineer phrases the giving of a promise, but the little girl took them literally and she rode up to him with slim fingers outstretched and a warm friendly smile on her little red mouth. Awkwardly the lad thrust out his dirty, strong little hand.

  "Good-by, Jason," she said.

  "Good-by——" he faltered, and, still smiling, she finished the words for him.

  "Marjorie," she said, and unsmilingly he repeated:

  "Marjorie."

  While she passed through the gate he sat still and watched her, and he kept on watching her as she galloped toward home, twisting in his saddle to follow her course around the winding road. He saw a negro boy come out to the stile to take her pony, and there Marjorie, dismounting, saw in turn the lad still motionless where she had left him, and looking after her. She waved her whip to him, went on toward the house, and when she reached the top of the steps, she turned and waved to him again, but he made no answering gesture, and only when the front door closed behind her, did the boy waken from his trance and jog slowly up the road. Only the rim of the red fire-ball was arched over the horizon behind him now. Winter dusk was engulfing the fields and through it belated crows were scurrying silently for protecting woods. For a little while Jason rode with his hands folded man-wise on the pommel of his saddle and with manlike emotions in his heart, for, while the mountains still beckoned, this land had somehow grown more friendly and there was a curious something after all that he would leave behind. What it was he hardly knew; but a pair of blue eyes, misty with mysterious tears, had sown memories in his confused brain that he would not soon lose. He did not forget the contempt that had blazed from those eyes, but he wondered now at the reason for that contempt. Was there something that ruled this land—— something better than the code that ruled his hills? He had remembered every word the geologist had ever said, for he loved the man, but it had remained for a strange girl——a girl——to revive them, to give them actual life and plant within him a sudden resolve to learn for himself what it all meant, and to practise it, if he found it good. A cold wind sprang up now and cutting through his thin clothes drove him in a lope toward his mother's home.

  Apparently Mavis was watching for him through the window of the cottage, for she ran out on the porch to meet him, but something in the boy's manner checked her, and she neither spoke nor asked a question while the boy took off his saddle and tossed it on the steps. Nor did Jason give her but one glance, for the eagerness of her face and the trust and tenderness in her eyes were an unconscious reproach and made him feel guilty and faithless, so that he changed his mind about turning the old mare out in the yard and led her to the stable, merely to get away from the little girl.

  Mavis was in the kitchen when he entered the house, and while they all were eating supper, the lad could feel his little cousin's eyes on him all the time——watching and wondering and troubled and hurt. And when the four were seated about the fire, he did not look at her when he announced that he was going back home, but he saw her body start and shrink. His step-father yawned and said nothing, and his mother looked on into the fire.

  "When you goin', Jasie?" she asked at last.

  "Daylight," he answered shortly.

  There was a long silence.

  "Whut you goin' to do down thar?"

  The lad lifted his head fiercely and looked from the woman to the man and back again.

  "I'm a-goin' to git that land back," he snapped; and as there was no question, no comment, he settled back brooding in his chair.

  "Hit wasn't right——hit couldn't 'a' been right," he muttered, and then as though he were answering his mother's unspoken question:

  "I don't know how I'm goin' to git it back, but if it wasn't right, thar must be some way, an' I'm a-goin' to find out if hit takes me all my life."

  His mother was still silent, though she had lifted a comer of her apron to her eyes, and the lad rose and without a word of good- night climbed the stairs to go to bed. Then the mother spoke to her husband angrily.

  "You oughtn't to let the boy put all the blame on me, Steve——you made me sell that land."

  Steve's answer was another yawn, and he rose to get ready for bed, and Mavis, too, turned indignant eyes on him, for she had heard enough from the two to know that her step-mother spoke the truth. Her father opened the door and she heard the creak of his heavy footsteps across the freezing porch. Her step-mother went into the kitchen and Mavis climbed the stairs softly and opened Jason's door.

  "Jasie!" she called.

  "Whut you want?"

  "Jasie, take me back home with ye, won't you?"

  A rough denial was on his lips, but her voice broke into a little sob and the boy lay for a moment without answering.

  "Whut on earth would you do down thar, Mavis?"

  And then he remembered how he had told her that he would come for her some day, and he remembered the Hawn boast that a Hawn's word was as good as his bond and he added kindly: "Wait till mornin', Mavis. I'll take ye if ye want to go."

  The door closed instantly and she was gone. When the lad came down before day next morning Mavis had finished tying a few things in a bundle and was pushing it out of sight under a bed, and Jason knew what that meant.

  "You hain't told 'em?"

  Mavis shook her head.

  "Mebbe yo' pap won't let ye."

  "He ain't hyeh," said the little girl.

  "Whar is he?"

  "I don't know."

  "Mavis," said the boy seriously, "I'm a boy an' hit don't make no difference whar I go, but you're a gal an' hit looks like you ought to stay with yo' daddy."

  The girl shook her head stubbornly, but he paid no attention.

  "I tell ye, I'm a-goin' back to that new-fangled school when I git to grandpap's, an' whut'll you do?"

  "I'll go with ye."

  "I've thought o' that," said the boy patiently, "but they mought not have room fer neither one of us——an' I can take keer o' myself anywhar."

  "Yes," said the little girl proudly, "an' I'll trust ye to take keer o' me——anywhar."

  The boy looked at her long and hard, but there was no feminine cunning in her eyes——nothing but simple trust——and his silence was a despairing assent. From the kitchen his mother called them to breakfast.

  "Whar's Steve?" asked the boy.

  The mother gave the same answer as had Mavis, but she looked anxious and worried.

  "Mavis is a-goin' back to the mountains with me," said the boy, and the girl looked up in defiant expectation, but the mother did not even look around from the stove.

  "Mebbe yo' pap won't let ye," she said quietly.

  "How's he goin' to help hisself," asked the girl, "when he ain't hyeh?"

  "He'll blame me fer it, but I ain't a-blamin' you."

  The words surprised and puzzled both and touched both with sympathy and a little shame. The mother looked at her son, opened her lips again, but closed them with a glance at Mavis that made her go out and leave them alone.

  "Jasie," she said then, "I reckon when Babe was a-playin' 'possum in the bushes that day, he could 'a' shot ye when you run down the hill."

  She took his silence for assent and went on:

  "That shows he don't hold no grudge agin you fer shootin' at him."

  Still Jason was silent, and a line of stern justice straightened the woman's lips.

  "I hain't got no right to say a word, just because Babe air my own brother. Mebbe Babe knows who the man was, but I don't believe Babe done it. Hit hain't enough that he was jes' seed a-comin' outen the bushes, an' afore you go a-layin' fer Babe, all I axe ye is to make plumb dead shore."

  It was a strange new note to come from his mother's voice, and it kept the boy still silent from helplessness and shame. She had spoken calmly, but now there was a little break in her voice.

  "I want ye to go back, an' I'd go blind fer the rest o' my days if that land was yours an' was a-waitin' down thar fer ye."

  From the next room came the sound of Mavis's restless feet, and the boy rose.

  "I hain't a-goin' to lay fer Babe, mammy," he said huskily; "I hain't a-goin' to lay fer nobody——now. An' don't you worry no more about that land."

  Half an hour later, just when day was breaking, Mavis sat behind Jason with her bundle in her lap, and the mother looked up at them.

  "I wish I was a-goin' with ye," she said.

  And when they had passed out of sight down the lane, she turned back into the house——weeping.

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