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A Mountain Europa(Chapter3)

2006-08-29 01:17

  Chapter III

  When the great bell struck the hour of the next noon, mountaineers with long rifles across their shoulders were moving through the camp. The glen opened into a valley, which, blocked on the east by Pine Mountain, was thus shut in on every side by wooded heights. Here the marksmen gathered. All were mountaineers, lank, bearded, men, coatless for the most part, and dressed in brown home-made jeans, slouched, formless hats, and high, coarse boots. Sun and wind had tanned their faces to sympathy, in color, with their clothes, which had the dun look of the soil. They seemed peculiarly a race of the soil, to have sprung as they were from the earth, which had left indelible stains upon them. All carried long rifles, old-fashioned and home-made, some even with flint-locks. It was Saturday, and many of their wives had come with them to the camp. These stood near, huddled into a listless group, with their faces half hidden in check bonnets of various colors. A barbaric love of color was apparent in bonnet, shawl, and gown, and surprisingly in contrast with such crudeness of taste was a face when fully seen, so modest was it. The features were always delicately wrought, and softened sometimes by a look of patient suffering almost into refinement.

  On the other side of the contestants were the people of the camp, a few miners with pipes lounging on the ground, and women and girls, who returned the furtive glances of the mountain women with stares of curiosity and low laughter.

  Clayton had been delayed by his work, and the match was already going on when he reached the grounds.

  "You've missed mighty fine shootin'," said Uncle Tommy Brooks, who was squatted on the ground near the group of marksmen.

  Sherd's been a-beatin' ever'body. I'm afeard Easter hain't a-comm'. The match is 'most over now. Ef she'd been here, I don't think Sherd would 'a' got the ch'ice parts o' that beef so easy."

  "Which is he? " asked Clayton.

  That tall feller thar loadin' his gun."

  "What did you say his name was?

  " Sherd Raines, the feller that's goin' to be our circuit-rider."

  He remembered the peculiar name. So this was Easter's lover. Clayton looked at the young mountaineer, curiously at first, and then with growing interest. His quiet air of authority among his fellows was like a birthright; it seemed assumed and accepted unconsciously. His face was smooth, and he was fuller in figure than the rest, but still sinewy and lank, though not awkward; his movements were too quick and decisive for that. With a casual glance Clayton had wondered what secret influence could have turned to spiritual things a man so merely animal-like in face and physique; but when the mountaineer thrust back his hat, elemental strength and seriousness were apparent in the square brow, the steady eye, the poise of the head, and in lines around the strong mouth and chin in which the struggle for self-mastery had been traced.

  As the mountaineer thrust his ramrod back into its casing, he glanced at the woods behind Clayton, and said something to his companions. They, too, raised their eyes, and at the same moment the old mountaineer plucked Clayton by the sleeve.

  "Thar comes Easter now."

  The girl had just emerged from the edge of the forest, and with a rifle on one shoulder and a bullet-pouch and powder-horn swung from the other, was slowly coming down the path.

  " Why, how air ye, Easter? " cried the old man, heartily. " Goin' to shoot, air ye? I 'lowed ye wouldn't miss this. Ye air mighty late, though."

  Oh, I only wanted a turkey," said the girl. "Well, I'm a-comm' up to eat dinner with ye to-morrer," he answered, with a laugh, " fer I know ye'll git one. Y'u're on hand fer most o' the matches now. Wild turkeys must be a-gittin' skeerce."

  The girl smiled, showing a row of brilliant teeth between her thin, red lips, and, without answering, moved toward the group of mountain women. Clayton had raised his hand to his hat when the old man addressed her, but he dropped it quickly to his side in no little embarrassment when the girl carelessly glanced over him with no sign of recognition. Her rifle was an old flint-lock of light build, but nearly six feet in length, with a shade of rusty tin two feet long fastened to the barrel to prevent the sunlight from affecting the marksman's aim. She wore a man's hat, which, with unintentional coquetry, was perched on one side of her head. Her hair was short, and fell as it pleased about her neck. She was bare-footed, and apparently clad in a single garment, a blue homespun gown, gathered loosely at her uncorseted waist, and showing the outline of the bust and every movement of the tall, supple form beneath. Her appearance had quickened the interest of the spectators, and apparently was a disturbing influence among the contestants, who were gathered together, evidently in dispute. From their glances Clayton saw that Easter was the subject of it.

  "I guess they don't want her to shoot-them that hain't won nothin'," said Uncle Tommy.

  She hev come in late," Clayton heard one say, " 'n' she oughtn' to shoot. Thar hain't no chance shootin' ag'in her noways, 'n' I'm in favor o' barrin' her out."

  Oh no; let her shoot "-the voice was Raines's. "Thar hain't nothin' but a few turkeys left, 'n' ye'd better bar out the gun 'stid o' the gal, anyway, fer that gun kin outshoot any-thing in the mountains."

  The girl had been silently watching the group as if puzzled; and when Raines spoke her face tightened with sudden decision, and she strode swiftly toward them in time to overhear the young mountaineer's last words.

  So hit's the gun, is hit, Sherd Raines?

  The crowd turned, and Raines shrank a little as the girl faced him with flashing eyes. "So hit's the gun, is hit? Hit is a good gun, but ye ought to be ashamed to take all the credit 'way from me. But ef you air so sartain hit's the gun," she continued, "I'll shoot yourn, 'n' y'u kin hev mine ef I don't beat ye with yer own gun."

  "Good fer you, Easter!" shouted the old mountaineer.

  Raines had recovered himself, and was looking at the girl seriously. Several of his companions urged him aloud to accept the challenge, but he paid no heed to them. He seemed to be debating the question with himself, and a moment later he said, quietly:

  "'N' you kin hev mine ef I don't beat you."

  This was all he said, but he kept his eyes fixed on the girl's face; and when, with a defiant glance, she turned toward the mountain women, he followed and stopped her.

  "Easter," Clayton heard him say, in a low, slow voice, "I was tryin' to git ye a chance to shoot, fer ye hev been winnin' so much that it's hard to git up a match when ye air in it." The hard look on the girl's face remained unchanged, and the mountaineer continued, firmly:

  "'N' I told the truth; fer ef ye pin me down, I do think hit is the gun."

  " Jes you wait 'n' see," answered the girl, shortly, and Raines, after a questioning look, rejoined the group.

  "I won't take the gun ef I win it," he said to them; "but she air gittin' too set up an' proud, 'n' I'm goin' to do my best to take her down a bit."

  There was nothing boastful or malicious in his manner or speech, and nobody doubted that he would win, for there were few marksmen in the mountains his equals, and he would have the advantage of using his own gun.

  "Look hyeh," said a long, thin mountaineer, coming up to the group, "thar ain't but one turkey left, 'n' I'd like to know what we air goin' to shoot at ef Sherd 'n' Easter gits a crack at him."

  In the interest of the match no one had thought of that, and a moment of debate followed, which Clayton ended by stepping forward.

  "I'll furnish a turkey for the rest of you," he said.

  The girl turned when he spoke and gave him a quick glance, but averted her eyes instantly.

  Clayton's offer was accepted, and the preliminary trial to decide who should shoot first at the turkey was begun. Every detail was watched with increasing interest. A piece of white paper marked with two concentric circles was placed sixty yards away, and Raines won with a bullet in the inner circle. The girl had missed both, and the mountaineer offered her two more shots to accustom herself to the gun. She accepted, and smiled a little triumphantly as she touched the outer circle with one bullet and placed the other almost in the centre. It was plain that the two were evenly matched, and several shouts of approval came from the crowd. The turkey was hobbled to a stake at the same distance, and both were to fire at its head, with the privilege of shooting at fifty yards if no rest were taken.

  Raines shot first without rest, and, as he missed, the girl followed his example. The turkey dozed on in the sunlight, undisturbed by either. The mountaineer was vexed. With his powerful face set determinedly, he lay down flat on the ground, and, resting his rifle over a small log, took an inordinately long and careful aim. The rifle cracked, the turkey bobbed its head unhurt, and the marksman sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and chagrin. As he loaded the gun and gravely handed it to the girl, the excitement grew intense. The crowd pressed close. The stolid faces of the mountaineer women, thrust from their bonnets, became almost eager with interest. Raines, quiet and composed as he was, looked anxious. All eyes followed every movement of the girl as she coolly stretched her long, active figure on the ground, drew her dress close about it, and, throwing her yellow hair over her face to shade her eyes from the slanting sunlight, placed her cheek against the stock of the gun. A long suspense followed. A hush almost of solemnity fell upon the crowd.

  "Why don't the gal shoot?" asked a voice, impatiently.

  Clayton saw what the matter was, and, stepping toward her, said quietly, "You forgot to set the trigger."

  The girl's face colored. Again her eye glanced along the barrel, a puff of smoke flew from the gun, and a shout came from every pair of lips as the turkey leaped into the air and fell, beating the ground with its wings. In an instant a young mountaineer had rushed forward and seized it, and, after a glance, dropped it with a yell of triumph.

  "Shot plum' through the eyes!" he shouted. "Shot plum' through the eyes!

  The girl arose, and handed the gun back to Raines.

  Keep hit," he said, steadily. " Hit's yourn."

  "I don't want the gun," she said, "but I did want that turkey-' n' "-a little tauntingly-"I did want to beat you, Sherd Raines."

  The mountaineer's face flushed and darkened, but he said nothing. He took no part in the shooting that followed, and when, after the match was over, the girl, with her rifle on one shoulder and the turkey over the other, turned up the mountain path, Clayton saw him follow her.

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