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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter8)

2006-08-29 01:33

  Chapter VIII

  St. Hilda sat on the vine-covered porch of her little log cabin, high on the hill-side, with a look of peace in her big dreaming eyes. From the frame house a few rods below her, mountain children——boys and girls——were darting in and out, busy as bees, and, unlike the dumb, pathetic little people out in the hills, alert, keen-eyed, cheerful, and happy. Under the log foot-bridge the shining creek ran down past the mountain village below, where the cupola of the court-house rose above the hot dirt streets, the ramshackle hotel, and the dingy stores and frame dwellings of the town. Across the bridge her eyes rested on another neat, well- built log cabin with a grass plot around it, and, running alongside and covered with honeysuckle——a pergola! That was her hospital down there——empty, thank God. With a little turn of her strong white chin, her eyes rested on the charred foundation of her school-house, to which some mean hand had applied the torch a month ago, and were lifted up to the mountain-side, where mountain men were chopping down trees and mountain oxen yanking them down the steep slopes to the bank of the creek, and then the peace of them went deeper still, for they could look back on her work and find it good. Nun-like in renunciation, she had given up her beloved Blue-grass land, she had left home and kindred, and she had settled, two days' journey from a railroad, in the hills. She had gone back to the physical life of the pioneers, she had encountered the customs and sentiments of mediaeval days, and no abbess of those days, carrying light into dark places, needed more courage and devotion to meet the hardships, sacrifice, and prejudice that she had overcome. She brought in the first wagon- load of window-panes for darkened homes before she even tapped on the window of a darkened mind; but when she did, no plants ever turned more eagerly toward the light than did the youthful souls of those Kentucky hills. She started with five pupils in a log cabin. She built a homely frame house with five rooms, only to find more candidates clamoring at her door. She taught the girls to cook, sew, wash and iron, clean house, and make baskets, and the boys to use tools, to farm, make garden, and take care of animals; and she taught them all to keep clean. Out in the hills she found good old names, English and Scotch-Irish. She found men who "made their mark" boasting of grandfathers who were "scholards." In one household she came upon a time-worn set of the "British Poets" up to the nineteenth century, and such was the sturdy character of the hillsmen that she tossed the theory aside that they were the descendants of the riffraff of the Old World, tossed it as a miserable slander and looked upon them as the same blood as the people of the Blue-grass, the valleys, and the plains beyond. On the westward march they had simply dropped behind, and their isolation had left them in a long sleep that had given them a long rest, but had done them no real harm. Always in their eyes, however, she was a woman, and no woman was "fitten" to teach school. She was more——a "fotched-on" woman, a distrusted "furriner," and she was carrying on a "slavery school." Sometimes she despaired of ever winning their unreserved confidence, but out of the very depth of that despair to which the firebrand of some miscreant had plunged her, rose her star of hope, for then the Indian-like stoicism of her neighbors melted and she learned the place in their hearts that was really hers. Other neighborhoods asked for her to come to them, but her own would not let her go. Straightway there was nothing to eat, smoke, chew, nor wear that grew or was made in those hills that did not pour toward her. Land was given her, even money was contributed for rebuilding, and when money was not possible, this man and that gave his axe, his horse, his wagon, and his services as a laborer for thirty and sixty days. So that those axes gleaming in the sun on the hillside, those straining muscles, and those sweating brows meant a labor of love going on for her. No wonder the peace of her eyes was deep.

  And yet St. Hilda, as one forsaken lover in the Blue-grass had christened her, opened the little roll-book in her lap and sighed deeply, for in there on her waiting-list were the names of a hundred children for whom, with all the rebuilding, she would have no place. Only the day before, a mountaineer had brought in nine boys and girls, his stepdaughter's and his own, and she had sadly turned them away. Still they were coming in name and in person, on horseback, in wagon and afoot, and among them was Jason Hawn, who was starting toward her that morning from far away over the hills.

  Over there the twin spirals of smoke no longer rose on either side of the ridge and drifted upward, for both cabins were closed. Jason's sale was just over——the sale of one cow, two pigs, a dozen chickens, one stove, and a few pots and pans——the neighbors were gone, and Jason sat alone on the porch with more money in his pocket than he had ever seen at one time in his life. His bow and arrow were in one hand, his father's rifle was over his shoulder, and his old nag was hitched to the fence. The time had come. He had taken a farewell look at the black column of coal he had unearthed for others, the circuit rider would tend his little field of corn on shares, Mavis would live with the circuit rider's wife, and his grandfather had sternly forbidden the boy to take any hand in the feud. The geologist had told him to go away and get an education, his Uncle Arch had offered to pay his way if he would go to the Bluegrass to school——an offer that the boy curtly declined——and now he was starting to the settlement school of which he had heard so much, in the county-seat of an adjoining county. For, even though run by women, it must be better than nothing, better than being beholden to his Uncle Arch, better than a place where people and country were strange. So, Jason mounted his horse, rode down to the forks of the creek and drew up at the circuit rider's house, where Mavis and the old woman came out to the gate to say good-by. The boy had not thought much about the little girl and the loneliness of her life after he was gone, for he was the man, he was the one to go forth and do; and it was for Mavis to wait for him to come back. But when he handed her the bow and arrow and told her they were hers, the sight of her face worried him deeply.

  "I'm a-goin' over thar an' if I like it an' thar's a place fer you, I'll send the nag back fer you, too."

  He spoke with manly condescension only to comfort her, but the eager gladness that leaped pitifully from her eyes so melted him that he added impulsively: "S'pose you git up behind me an' go with me right now."

  "Mavis ain't goin' now," said the old woman sharply. "You go on whar you're goin' an' come back fer her."

  "All right," said Jason, greatly relieved. "Take keer o' yourselves."

  With a kick he started the old nag and again pulled in.

  "An' if you leave afore I git back, Mavis, I'm a-goin' to come atter you, no matter whar you air——some day."

  "Good-by," faltered the little girl, and she watched him ride down the creek and disappear, and her tears came only when she felt the old woman's arms around her.

  "Don't you mind, honey."

  Over ridge and mountain and up and down the rocky beds of streams jogged Jason's old nag for two days until she carried him to the top of the wooded ridge whence he looked down on the little mountain town and the queer buildings of the settlement school. Half an hour later St. Hilda saw him cross the creek below the bridge, ride up to the foot-path gate, hitch his old mare, and come straight to her where she sat——in a sturdy way that fixed her interest instantly and keenly.

  "I've come over hyeh to stay with ye," he said simply.

  St. Hilda hesitated and distress kept her silent.

  "My name's Jason Hawn. I come from t'other side o' the mountain an' I hain't got no home."

  "I'm sorry, little man," she said gently, "but we have no place for you."

  The boy's eyes darted to one side and the other.

  "Shucks! I can sleep out thar in that woodshed. I hain't axin' no favors. I got a leetle money an' I can work like a man."

  Now, while St. Hilda's face was strong, her heart was divinely weak and Jason saw it. Unhesitatingly he climbed the steps, handed his rifle to her, sat down, and at once began taking stock of everything about him——the boy swinging an axe at the wood-pile, the boy feeding the hogs and chickens; another starting off on an old horse with a bag of corn for the mill, another ploughing the hill-side. Others were digging ditches, working in a garden, mending a fence, and making cinder paths. But in all this his interest was plainly casual until his eyes caught sight of a pile of lumber at the door of the workshop below, and through the windows the occasional gleam of some shining tool. Instantly one eager finger shot out.

  "I want to go down thar."

  Good-humoredly St. Hilda took him, and when Jason looked upon boys of his own age chipping, hewing, planing lumber, and making furniture, so busy that they scarcely gave him a glance, St, Hilda saw his eyes light and his fingers twitch.

  "Gee!" he whispered with a catch of his breath, "this is the place fer me."

  But when they went back and Jason put his head into the big house, St. Hilda saw his face darken, for in there boys were washing dishes and scrubbing floors.

  "Does all the boys have to do that?" he asked with great disgust.

  "Oh, yes," she said.

  Jason turned abruptly away from the door, and when he passed a window of the cottage on the way back to her cabin and saw two boys within making up beds, he gave a grunt of scorn and derision and he did not follow her up the steps.

  "Gimme back my gun," he said.

  "Why, what's the matter, Jason?"

  "This is a gals' school——hit hain't no place fer me."

  It was no use for her to tell him that soldiers made their own beds and washed their own dishes, for his short answer was:

  "Mebbe they had to, 'cause thar wasn't no women folks around, but he didn't," and his face was so hopelessly set and stubborn that she handed him the old gun without another word. For a moment he hesitated, lifting his solemn eyes to hers. "I want you to know I'm much obleeged," he said. Then he turned away, and St. Hilda saw him mount his old nag, climb the ridge opposite without looking back, and pass over the summit.

  Old Jason Hawn was sitting up in a chair when two days later disgusted little Jason rode up to his gate.

  "They wanted me to do a gal's work over thar," he explained shortly, and the old man nodded grimly with sympathy and understanding.

  "I was lookin' fer ye to come back."

  Old Aaron Honeycutt had been winged through the shoulder while the lad was away and the feud score had been exactly evened by the ambushing of another of the tribe. On this argument Arch Hawn was urging a resumption of the truce, but both clans were armed and watchful and everybody was looking for a general clash on the next county-court day. The boy soon rose restlessly.

  "Whar you goin'?"

  "I'm a-goin' to look atter my corn."

  At the forks of the creek the old circuit rider hailed Jason gladly, and he, too, nodded with approval when he heard the reason the boy had come back.

  "I'll make ye a present o' the work I've done in yo' corn——bein' as I must 'a' worked might' nigh an hour up thar yestiddy an' got plumb tuckered out. I come might' nigh fallin' out, hit was so steep, an' if I had, I reckon I'd 'a' broke my neck."

  The old woman appeared on the porch and she, too, hailed the boy with a bantering tone and a quizzical smile.

  "One o' them fotched-on women whoop ye fer missin' yo' a-b-abs?" she asked. Jason scowled.

  "Whar's Mavis?" The old woman laughed teasingly.

  "Why, hain't ye heerd the news? How long d'ye reckon a purty gal like Mavis was a-goin' to wait fer you? 'Member that good-lookin' little furrin feller who was down here from the settlemints? Well, he come back an' tuk her away."

  Jason knew the old woman was teasing him, and instead of being angry, as she expected, he looked so worried and distressed that she was sorry, and her rasping old voice became gentle with affection.

  "Mavis's gone to the settlemints, honey. Her daddy sent fer her an' I made her go. She's whar she belongs——up thar with him an' yo' mammy. Go put yo' hoss in the stable an' come an' live right here with us."

  Jason shook his head and without answer turned his horse down the creek again. A little way down he saw three Honeycutts coming, all armed, and he knew that to avoid passing his grandfather's house they were going to cross the ridge and strike the head of their own creek. One of them was a boy——"little Aaron"——less than two years older than himself, and little Aaron not only had a pistol buckled around him, but carried a Winchester across his saddle- bow. The two men grinned and nodded good-naturedly to him, but the boy Aaron pulled his horse across the road and stopped Jason, who had stood many a taunt from him.

  "Which side air you on now?" asked Aaron contemptuously.

  "You git out o' my road!"

  "Hit's my road now," said Aaron, tapping his Winchester, "an' I've got a great notion o' makin' you git offen that ole bag o' bones an' dance fer me." One of the Honeycutts turned in his saddle.

  "Come on," he shouted angrily, "an' let that boy alone."

  "All right," he shouted back, and then to his white, quivering, helpless quarry:

  "I'll let ye off this time, but next time——"

  "I'll be ready fer ye," broke in Jason.

  The lad's mind was made up now. He put the old nag in a lope down the rocky creek. He did not even go to his grandfather's for dinner, but turned at the river in a gallop for town. The rock- pecker, and even Mavis, were gone from his mind, and the money in his pocket was going, not for love or learning, but for pistol and cartridge now.

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