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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter2)

2006-08-29 01:31

  Chapter II

  On the other side, too, a similar branch ran down into another creek which looped around the long slanting side of the spur and emptied, too, into the Cumberland. At the mouth of each creek the river made a great bend, and in the sweep of each were rich bottom lands. A century before, a Hawn had settled in one bottom, the lower one, and a Honeycutt in the other. As each family multiplied, more land was cleared up each creek by sons and grandsons until in each cove a clan was formed. No one knew when and for what reason an individual Hawn and a Honeycutt had first clashed, but the clash was of course inevitable. Equally inevitable was it, too, that the two clans should take the quarrel up, and for half a century the two families had, with intermittent times of truce, been traditional enemies. The boy's father, Jason Hawn, had married a Honeycutt in a time of peace, and, when the war opened again, was regarded as a deserter, and had been forced to move over the spur to the Honeycutt side. The girl's father, Steve Hawn, a ne'erdo-well and the son of a ne'er-do-well, had for his inheritance wild lands, steep, supposedly worthless, and near the head of the Honeycutt cove. Little Jason's father, when he quarrelled with his kin, could afford to buy only cheap land on the Honeycutt side, and thus the homes of the two were close to the high heart of the mountain, and separated only by the bristling crest of the spur. In time the boy's father was slain from ambush, and it was a Hawn, the Honeycutts claimed, who had made him pay the death price of treachery to his own kin. But when peace came, this fact did not save the lad from taunt and suspicion from the children of the Honeycutt tribe, and being a favorite with his Grandfather Hawn down on the river, and harshly treated by his Honeycutt mother, his life on the other side in the other cove was a hard one; so his heart had gone back to his own people and, having no companions, he had made a playmate of his little cousin, Mavis, over the spur. In time her mother had died, and in time her father, Steve, had begun slouching over the spur to court the widow——his cousin's widow, Martha Hawn. Straightway the fact had caused no little gossip up and down both creeks, good-natured gossip at first, but, now that the relations between the two clans were once more strained, there was open censure, and on that day when all the men of both factions had gone to the county-seat, the boy knew that Steve Hawn had stayed at home for no other reason than to make his visit that day secret; and the lad's brain, as he strode ahead of his silent little companion, was busy with the significance of what was sure to come.

  At the mouth of the branch, the two came upon a road that also ran down to the river, but they kept on close to the bank of the stream which widened as they travelled——the boy striding ahead without looking back, the girl following like a shadow. Still again they crossed the road, where it ran over the foot of the spur and turned down into a deep bowl filled to the brim with bush and tree, and there, where a wide pool lay asleep in thick shadow, the lad pulled forth the ball of earth and worms from his pocket, dropped them with the fishing-pole to the ground, and turned ungallantly to his bow and arrow. By the time he had strung it, and had tied one end of the string to the shaft of the arrow and the other about his wrist, the girl had unwound the coarse fishing-line, had baited her own hook, and, squatted on her heels, was watching her cork with eager eyes; but when the primitive little hunter crept to the lower end of the pool, and was peering with Indian caution into the depths, her eyes turned to him.

  "Watch out thar!" he called, sharply.

  Her cork bobbed, sank, and when, with closed eyes, she jerked with all her might, a big shining chub rose from the water and landed on the bank beside her. She gave a subdued squeal of joy, but the boy's face was calm as a star. Minnows like that were all right for a girl to catch and even for him to eat, but he was after game for a man. A moment later he heard another jerk and another fish was flopping on the bank, and this time she made no sound, but only flashed her triumphant eyes upon him. At the third fish, she turned her eyes for approval——and got none; and at the fourth, she did not look up at all, for he was walking toward her.

  "You air skeerin' the big uns," he said shortly, and as he passed he pulled his Barlow knife from his pocket and dropped it at her feet. She rose obediently, and with no sign of protest began gathering an apronful of twigs and piling them for a fire. Then she began scraping one of the fish, and when it was cleaned she lighted the fire. The blaze crackled merrily, the blue smoke rose like some joyous spirit loosed for upward flight, and by the time the fourth fish was cleaned, a little bed of winking coals was ready and soon a gentle sizzling assailed the boy's ears, and a scent made his nostrils quiver and set his stomach a-hungering. But still he gave no sign of interest——even when the little girl spoke at last:

  "Dinner's ready."

  He did not look around, for he had crouched, his body taut from head to foot, and he might have been turned suddenly to stone for all the sign of life he gave, and the little girl too was just as motionless. Then she saw the little statue come slowly back to quivering life. She saw the bow bend, the shaft of the arrow drawing close to the boy's paling cheek, there was a rushing hiss through the air, a burning hiss in the water, a mighty bass leaped from the convulsed surface and shot to the depths again, leaving the headless arrow afloat. The boy gave one sharp cry and lapsed into his stolid calm again.

  The little girl said nothing, for there is no balm for the tragedy of the big fish that gets away. Slowly he untied the string from his reddened wrist and pulled the arrow in. Slowly he turned and gazed indifferently at the four crisp fish on four dry twigs with four pieces of corn pone lying on the grass near them, and the little girl squatting meekly and waiting, as the woman should for her working lord. With his Barlow knife he slowly speared a corn pone, picking up a fish with the other hand, and still she waited until he spoke.

  "Take out, Mavie," he said with great gravity and condescension, and then his knife with a generous mouthful on its point stopped in the air, his startled eyes widened, and the little girl shrank cowering behind him. A heavy footfall had crunched on the quiet air, the bushes had parted, and a huge mountaineer towered above them with a Winchester over his shoulder and a kindly smile under his heavy beard. The boy was startled——not frightened.

  "Hello, Babe!" he said coolly. "Whut devilmint you up to now?"

  The giant smiled uneasily:

  "I'm keepin' out o' the sun an' a-takin' keer o' my health," he said, and his eyes dropped hungrily to the corn pone and fried fish, but the boy shook his head sturdily.

  "You can't git nothin' to eat from me, Babe Honeycutt."

  "Now, looky hyeh, Jason——"

  "Not a durn bite," said the boy firmly, "even if you air my mammy's brother. I'm a Hawn now, I want ye to know, an' I ain't goin' to have my folks say I was feedin' an' harborin' a Honeycutt——'specially you."

  It would have been humorous to either Hawn or Honeycutt to hear the big man plead, but not to the girl, though he was an enemy, and had but recently wounded a cousin of hers, and was hiding from her own people, for her warm little heart was touched, and big Babe saw it and left his mournful eyes on hers.

  "An' I'm a-goin' to tell whar I've seed ye," went on the boy savagely, but the girl grabbed up two fish and a corn pone and thrust them out to the huge hairy hand eagerly stretched out.

  "Now, git away," she said breathlessly, "git away——quick!"

  "Mavis!" yelled the boy.

  "Shet up!" she cried, and the lips of the routed boy fell apart in sheer amazement, for never before had she made the slightest question of his tyrannical authority, and then her eyes blazed at the big Honeycutt and she stamped her foot.

  "I'd give 'em to the meanest dog in these mountains."

  The big man turned to the boy.

  "Is he dead yit?"

  "No, he ain't dead yit," said the boy roughly.

  "Son," said the mountaineer quietly, "you tell whutever you please about me."

  The curiously gentle smile had never left the bearded lips, but in his voice a slight proud change was perceptible.

  "An' you can take back yo' corn pone, honey."

  Then dropping the food in his hand back to the ground, he noiselessly melted into the bushes again.

  At once the boy went to work on his neglected corn-bread and fish, but the girl left hers untouched where they lay. He ate silently, staring at the water below him, nor did the little girl turn her eyes his way, for in the last few minutes some subtle change in their relations had taken place, and both were equally surprised and mystified. Finally, the lad ventured a sidewise glance at her beneath the brim of his hat and met a shy, appealing glance once more. At once he felt aggrieved and resentful and turned sullen.

  "He throwed it back in yo' face," he said. "You oughtn't to 'a' done it."

  Little Mavis made no answer.

  "You're nothin' but a gal, an' nobody'll hold nothin' agin you, but with my mammy a Honeycutt an' me a-livin' on the Honeycutt side, you mought 'a' got me into trouble with my own folks." The girl knew how Jason had been teased and taunted and his life made miserable up and down the Honeycutt creek, and her brown face grew wistful and her chin quivered.

  "I jes' couldn't he'p it, Jason," she said weakly, and the little man threw up his hands with a gesture that spoke his hopelessness over her sex in general, and at the same time an ungracious acceptance of the terrible calamity she had perhaps left dangling over his head. He clicked the blade of his Barlow knife and rose.

  "We better be movin' now," he said, with a resumption of his old authority, and pulling in the line and winding it about the cane pole, he handed it to her and started back up the spur with Mavis trailing after, his obedient shadow once more.

  On top of the spur Jason halted. A warm blue haze transfused with the slanting sunlight overlay the flanks of the mountains which, fold after fold, rippled up and down the winding river and above the green crests billowed on and on into the unknown. Nothing more could happen to them if they went home two hours later than would surely happen if they went home now, the boy thought, and he did not want to go home now. For a moment he stood irresolute, and then, far down the river, he saw two figures on horseback come into sight from a strip of woods, move slowly around a curve of the road, and disappear into the woods again.

  One rode sidewise, both looked absurdly small, and even that far away the boy knew them for strangers. He did not call Mavis's attention to them——he had no need——for when he turned, her face showed that she too had seen them, and she was already moving forward to go with him down the spur. Once or twice, as they went down, each glimpsed the coming "furriners" dimly through the trees; they hurried that they might not miss the passing, and on a high bank above the river road they stopped, standing side by side, the eyes of both fixed on the arched opening of the trees through which the strangers must first come into sight. A ringing laugh from the green depths heralded their coming, and then in the archway were framed a boy and a girl and two ponies——all from another world. The two watchers stared silently——the boy noting that the other boy wore a cap and long stockings, the girl that a strange hat hung down the back of the other girl's head——stared with widening eyes at a sight that was never for them before. And then the strangers saw them——the boy with his bow and arrow, the girl with a fishing-pole——and simultaneously pulled their ponies in before the halting gaze that was levelled at them from the grassy bank. Then they all looked at one another until boy's eyes rested on boy's eyes for question and answer, and the stranger lad's face flashed with quick humor.

  "Were you looking for us?" he asked, for just so it seemed to him, and the little mountaineer nodded.

  "Yes," he said gravely.

  The stranger boy laughed.

  "What can we do for you?"

  Now, little Jason had answered honestly and literally, and he saw now that he was being trifled with.

  "A feller what wears gal's stockings can't do nothin' fer me," he said coolly.

  Instantly the other lad made as though he would jump from his pony, but a cry of protest stopped him, and for a moment he glared his hot resentment of the insult; then he dug his heels into his pony's sides.

  "Come on, Marjorie," he said, and with dignity the two little "furriners" rode on, never looking back even when they passed over the hill.

  "He didn't mean nothin'," said Mavis, "an' you oughtn't——"

  Jason turned on her in a fury.

  "I seed you a-lookin' at him!"

  "'Tain't so! I seed you a-lookin' at her!" she retorted, but her eyes fell before his accusing gaze, and she began worming a bare toe into the sand.

  "Air ye goin' home now?" she asked, presently.

  "No," he said shortly, "I'm a-goin' atter him. You go on home."

  The boy started up the hill, and in a moment the girl was trotting after him. He turned when he heard the patter of her feet.

  "Huh!" he grunted contemptuously, and kept on. At the top of the hill he saw several men on horseback in the bend of the road below, and he turned into the bushes.

  "They mought tell on us," explained Jason, and hiding bow and arrow and fishing-pole, they slipped along the flank of the spur until they stood on a point that commanded the broad river-bottom at the mouth of the creek.

  By the roadside down there, was the ancestral home of the Hawns with an orchard about it, a big garden, a stable huge for that part of the world, and a meat-house where for three-quarters of a century there had always been things "hung up." The old log house in which Jason and Mavis's great-great-grandfather had spent his pioneer days had been weather-boarded and was invisible somewhere in the big frame house that, trimmed with green and porticoed with startling colors, glared white in the afternoon sun. They could see the two ponies hitched at the front gate. Two horsemen were hurrying along the river road beneath them, and Jason recognized one as his uncle, Arch Hawn, who lived in the county-seat, who bought "wild" lands and was always bringing in "furriners," to whom he sold them again. The man with him was a stranger, and Jason understood better now what was going on. Arch Hawn was responsible for the presence of the man and of the girl and that boy in the "gal's stockings," and all of them would probably spend the night at his grandfather's house. A farm-hand was leading the ponies to the barn now, and Jason and Mavis saw Arch and the man with him throw themselves hurriedly from their horses, for the sun had disappeared in a black cloud and a mist of heavy rain was sweeping up the river. It was coming fast, and the boy sprang through the bushes and, followed by Mavis, flew down the road. The storm caught them, and in a few moments the stranger boy and girl looking through the front door at the sweeping gusts, saw two drenched and bedraggled figures slip shyly through the front gate and around the corner to the back of the house.

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