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.
September in the Blue-grass. The earth cooling from the summer's heat, the nights vigorous and chill, the fields greening with a second spring. Skies long, low, hazy, and gently arched over rolling field and meadow and woodland. The trees gray with the dust that had sifted all summer long from the limestone turnpikes. The streams shrunken to rivulets that trickled through crevices between broad flat stones and oozed through beds of water-cress and crow-foot, horse-mint and pickerel-weed, the wells low, cisterns empty, and recourse for water to barrels and the sunken ponds. The farmers cutting corn, still green, for stock, and ploughing ragweed strongholds for the sowing of wheat. The hemp an Indian village of gray wigwams. And a time of weeds—indeed the heyday of weeds of every kind, and the harvest time for the king weed of them all. Everywhere his yellow robes were hanging to poles and drying in the warm sun. Everywhere led the conquering war trail of the unkingly usurper, everywhere in his wake was devastation. The iron-weed had given up his purple crown, and yellow wheat, silver-gray oats, and rippling barley had fled at the sight of his banner to the open sunny spaces as though to make their last stand an indignant appeal that all might see. Even the proud woodlands looked ragged and drooping, for here and there the ruthless marauder had flanked one and driven a battalion into its very heart, and here and there charred stumps told plainly how he had overrun, destroyed, and ravished the virgin soil beneath. A fuzzy little parasite was throttling the life of the Kentuckians' hemp. A bewhiskered moralist in a far northern State would one day try to drive the kings of his racing-stable to the plough. A meddling band of fanatical teetotalers would overthrow his merry monarch, King Barleycorn, and the harassed son of the Blue-grass, whether he would or not, must turn to the new pretender who was in the Kentuckians' midst, uninvited and self-throned.
And with King Tobacco were coming his own human vassals that were to prove a new social discord in the land—up from the river- bottoms of the Ohio and down from the foot-hills of the Cumberland—to plant, worm, tend, and fit those yellow robes to be stuffed into the mouth of the world and spat back again into the helpless face of the earth. And these vassals were supplanting native humanity as the plant was supplanting the native products of the soil. And with them and the new king were due in time a train of evils to that native humanity, creating disaffection, dividing households against themselves, and threatening with ruin the lordly social structure itself.
But, for all this, the land that early September morning was a land of peace and plenty, and in field, meadow, and woodland the most foreign note of the landscape was a spot of crimson in the crotch of a high staked and ridered fence on the summit of a little hill, and that spot was a little girl. She had on an old- fashioned poke-bonnet of deep pink, her red dress was of old- fashioned homespun, her stockings were of yarn, and her rough shoes should have been on the feet of a boy. Had the vanished forests and cane-brakes of the eighteenth century covered the land, had the wild beasts and wild men come back to roam them, had the little girl's home been a stockade on the edge of the wilderness, she would have fitted perfectly to the time and the scene, as a little daughter of Daniel Boone. As it was, she felt no less foreign than she looked, for the strangeness of the land and of the people still possessed her so that her native shyness had sunk to depths that were painful. She had a new ordeal before her now, for in her sinewy little hands were a paper bag, a first reader, and a spelling-book, and she was on her way to school. Beneath her the white turnpike wound around the hill and down into a little hollow, and on the crest of the next low hill was a little frame house with a belfry on top. Even while she sat there with parted lips, her face in a tense dream and her eyes dark with dread and indecision, the bell from the little school-house clanged through the still air with a sudden, sharp summons that was so peremptory and personal that she was almost startled from her perch. Not daring to loiter any longer, she leaped lightly to the ground and started in breathless haste up and over the hill. As she went down it, she could see horses hitched to the fence around the yard and school-children crowding upon the porch and filing into the door. The last one had gone in before she reached the school-house gate, and she stopped with a thumping heart that quite failed her then and there, for she retreated backward through the gate, to be sure that no one saw her, crept along the stone wall, turned into a lane, and climbed a worm fence into the woods behind the school-house. There she sat down on a log, miserably alone, and over the sunny strange slopes of this new world, on over the foothills, her mind flashed to the big far-away mountains and, dropping her face into her hands, she began to sob out her loneliness and sorrow. The cry did her good, and by and by she lifted her head, rubbed her reddened eyes with the back of one hand, half rose to go to the school-house, and sank helplessly down on the thick grass by the side of the log. The sun beat warmly and soothingly down on her. The grass and even the log against her shoulders were warm and comforting, and the hum of insects about her was so drowsy that she yawned and settled deeper into the grass, and presently she passed into sleep and dreams of Jason. Jason was in the feud. She could see him crouched in some bushes and peering through them on the lookout evidently for some Honeycutt; and slipping up the other side of the hill was a Honeycutt looking for Jason. Somehow she knew it was the Honeycutt who had slain the boy's father, and she saw the man creep through the brush and worm his way on his belly to a stump above where Jason sat. She saw him thrust his Winchester through the leaves, she tried to shriek a warning to Jason, and she awoke so weak with terror that she could hardly scramble to her feet. Just then the air was rent with shrill cries, she saw school-boys piling over a fence and rushing toward her hiding-place, and, her wits yet ungathered, she turned and fled in terror down the hill, nor did she stop until the cries behind her grew faint; and then she was much ashamed of herself. Nobody was in pursuit of her—it was the dream that had frightened her. She could almost step on the head of her own shadow now, and that fact and a pang of hunger told her it was noon. It was noon recess back at the school and those school-boys were on their way to a playground. She had left her lunch at the log where she slept, and so she made her way back to it, just in time to see two boys pounce on the little paper bag lying in the grass. There was no shyness about her then—that bag was hers—and she flashed forward.
"Gimme that poke!"
The wrestling stopped and, startled by the cry and the apparition, the two boys fell apart.
"What?" said the one with the bag in his hand, while the other stared at Mavis with puzzled amazement.
"Gimme that poke!" blazed the girl, and the boy laughed, for the word has almost passed from the vocabulary of the Blue-grass. He held it high.
"Jump for it!" he teased.
"I hain't goin' to jump fer it—hit's mine."
Her hands clenched and she started slowly toward him.
"Give her the bag," said the other boy so imperatively that the little girl stopped with a quick and trustful shift of her own burden to him.
"She's got to jump for it!"
The other boy smiled, and it strangely seemed to Mavis that she had seen that smile before.
"Oh, I reckon not," he said quietly, and in a trice the two boys in a close, fierce grapple were rocking before her and the boy with the bag went to the earth first.
"Gouge him!" shrieked the mountain girl, and she rushed to them while they were struggling, snatched the bag from the loosened fingers, and, seeing the other boys on a run for the scene, fled for the lane. From the other side of the fence she saw the two lads rise, one still smiling, the other crying with anger; the school-bell clanged and she was again alone. Hurriedly she ate the bacon and corn-bread in the bag and then she made her way back along the lane, by the stone wall, through the school-house gate, and gathering her courage with one deep breath, she climbed the steps resolutely and stood before the open door.
The teacher, a tall man in a long black frock-coat, had his back to her, the room was crowded, and she saw no vacant seat. Every pair of eyes within was raised to her, and instantly she caught another surprised and puzzled stare from the boy who had taken her part a little while before. The teacher, seeing the attention of his pupils fixed somewhere behind him, turned to see the quaint figure, dismayed and helpless, in the doorway, and he went quickly toward her.
"This way," he said kindly, and pointing to a seat, he turned again to his pupils.
Still they stared toward the new-comer, and he turned again. The little girl's flushed face was still hidden by her bonnet, but before he reached her to tell her quietly she must take it off, she had seen that all the heads about her were bare and was pulling it off herself—disclosing a riotous mass of black hair, combed straight back from her forehead and gathered into a Psyche knot at the back of her head. Slowly the flush passed, but not for some time did she lift the extraordinary lashes that veiled her eyes to take a furtive glance about her. But, as the pupils bent more to their books, she grew bolder and looked about oftener and keenly, and she saw with her own eyes and in every pair of eyes whose glance she met, how different she was from all the other girls. For it was a look of wonder and amusement that she encountered each time, and sometimes two girls would whisper behind their hands and laugh, or one would nudge her desk-mate to look around at the stranger, so that the flush came back to Mavis's face and stayed there. The tall teacher saw, too, and understood, and, to draw no more attention to her than was necessary, he did not go near her until little recess. As he expected, she did not move from her seat when the other pupils trooped out, and when the room was empty he beckoned her to come to his desk, and in a moment, with her two books clasped in her hands, she stood shyly before him, meeting his kind gray searching eyes with unwavering directness.
"You were rather late coming to school."
"I was afeerd." The teacher smiled, for her eyes were fearless.
"What is your name?"
Her voice was slow, low, and rich, and in some wonder he half unconsciously repeated the unusual name.
"Where do you live?"
"Down the road a piece—'bout a whoop an' a holler."
"What? Oh, I see."
He smiled, for she meant to measure distance by sound, and she had used merely a variation of the "far cry" of Elizabethan days.
"Your father works in tobacco?" She nodded.
"You come from near the Ohio River?"
She looked puzzled.
"I come from the mountains."
He understood now her dress and speech, and he was not surprised at the answer to his next question.
"I hain't nuver been to school. Pap couldn't spare me."
"Can you read and write?"
"No," she said, but she flushed, and he knew straightway the sensitiveness and pride with which he would have to deal.
"Well," he said kindly, "we will begin now."
And he took the alphabet and told her the names of several letters and had her try to make them with a lead pencil, which she did with such uncanny seriousness and quickness that the pity of it, that in his own State such intelligence should be going to such broadcast waste for the want of such elemental opportunities, struck him deeply. The general movement to save that waste was only just beginning, and in that movement he meant to play his part. He was glad now to have under his own supervision one of those mountaineers of whom, but for one summer, he had known so little and heard so much—chiefly to their discredit—and he determined then and there to do all he could for her. So he took her back to her seat with a copy-book and pencil and told her to go on with her work, and that he would go to see her father and mother as soon as possible.
"I hain't got no mammy—hit's a step-mammy," she said, and she spoke of the woman as of a horse or a cow, and again he smiled. Then as he turned away he repeated her name to himself and with a sudden wonder turned quickly back.
"I used to know some Hawns down in your mountains. A little fellow named Jason Hawn used to go around with me all the time."
Her eyes filled and then flashed happily.
"Why, mebbe you air the rock-pecker?"
"The jologist. Jason's my cousin. I wasn't thar that summer. Jason's always talkin' 'bout you."
"Well, well—I guess I am. That is curious."
"Jason's mammy was a Honeycutt an' she married my daddy an' they run away," she went on eagerly, "an' I had to foller 'em."
"Where's Jason?" Again her eyes filled.
"I don't know."
John Burnham put his hand on her head gently and turned to his desk. He rang the bell and when the pupils trooped back she was hard at work, and she felt proud when she observed several girls looking back to see what she was doing, and again she was mystified that each face showed the same expression of wonder and of something else that curiously displeased her, and she wondered afresh why it was that everything in that strange land held always something that she could never understand. But a disdainful whisper came back to her that explained it all.
"Why, that new girl is only learning her a-b-c's," said a girl, and her desk-mate turned to her with a quick rebuke.
"Don't—she'll hear you."
Mavis caught the latter's eyes that instant, and with a warm glow at her heart looked her gratitude, and then she almost cried her surprise aloud—it was the stranger-girl who had been in the mountains—Marjorie. The girl looked back in a puzzled way, and a moment later Mavis saw her turn to look again. This time the mountain girl answered with a shy smile, and Marjorie knew her, nodded in a gay, friendly way, and bent her head to her book.
Presently she ran her eyes down the benches where the boys sat, and there was Gray waiting apparently for her to look around, for he too nodded gayly to her, as though he had known her from the start. The teacher saw the exchange of little civilities and he was much puzzled, especially when, the moment school was over, he saw the lad hurry to catch Marjorie, and the two then turn together toward the little stranger. Both thrust out their hands, and the little mountain girl, so unaccustomed to polite formalities, was quite helpless with embarrassment, so the teacher went over to help her out and Gray explained:
"Marjorie and I stayed with her grandfather, and didn't we have a good time, Marjorie?"
Marjorie nodded with some hesitation, and Gray went on:
"How—how is he now?"
"Grandpap's right peart now."
"And how's your cousin—Jason?"
The question sent such a sudden wave of homesickness through Mavis that her answer was choked, and Marjorie understood and put her arm around Mavis's shoulder.
"You must be lonely up here. Where do you live?" And when she tried to explain Gray broke in.
"Why, you must be one of our ten—you must live on our farm. Isn't that funny?"
"And I live further down the road across the pike," said Marjorie.
"In that great big house in the woods?"
"Yes," nodded Marjorie, "and you must come to see me."
Mavis's eyes had the light of gladness in them now, and through them looked a grateful heart. Outside, Gray got Marjorie's pony for her, the two mounted, rode out the gate and went down the pike at a gallop, and Marjorie whirled in her saddle to wave her bonnet back at the little mountaineer. The teacher, who stood near watching them, turned to go back and close up the school-house.
"I'm coming to see your father, and we'll get some books, and you are going to study so hard that you won't have time to get homesick any more," he said kindly, and Mavis started down the road, climbed the staked and ridered fence, and made her way across the fields. She had been lonely, and now homesickness came back to her worse than ever. She wondered about Jason—where he was and what he was doing and whether she would ever see him again. The memory of her parting with him came back to her—how he looked as she saw him for the last time sitting on his old nag, sturdy and apparently unmoved, and riding out of her sight in just that way; and she heard again his last words as though they were sounding then in her ears:
"I'm a-goin' to come an' git you—some day."
Since that day she had heard of him but once, and that was lately, when Arch Hawn had come to see her father and the two had talked a long time. They were all well, Arch said, down in the mountains. Jason had come back from the settlement school. Little Aaron Honeycutt had bantered him in the road and Jason had gone wild. He had galloped down to town, bought a Colt's forty-five and a pint of whiskey, had ridden right up to old Aaron Honeycutt's gate, shot off his pistol, and dared little Aaron to come out and fight. Little Aaron wanted to go, but old Aaron held him back, and Jason sat on his nag at the gate and "cussed out" the whole tribe, and swore "he'd kill every dad-blasted one of 'em if only to git the feller who shot his daddy." Old Aaron had behaved mighty well, and he and old Jason had sent each other word that they would keep both the boys out of the trouble. Then Arch had brought about another truce and little Jason had worked his crop and was making a man of himself. It was Archer Hawn who had insisted that Mavis herself should go to school and had agreed to pay all her expenses, but in spite of her joy at that, she was heart-broken when he was gone, and when she caught her step-mother weeping in the kitchen a vague sympathy had drawn them for the first time a little nearer together.
From the top of the little hill her new home was visible across a creek and by the edge of a lane. As she crossed a foot-bridge and made her way noiselessly along the dirt road she heard voices around a curve of the lane and she came upon a group of men leaning against a fence. In the midst of them was her father, and they were arguing with him earnestly and he was shaking his head.
"Them toll-gates hain't a-hurtin' me none," she heard him drawl. "I don't understand this business, an' I hain't goin' to git mixed up in hit."
Then he saw her coming and he stopped, and the others looked at her uneasily, she thought, as if wondering what she might have heard.
"Go on home, Mavis," he said shortly, and as she passed on no one spoke until she was out of hearing. Some mischief was afoot, but she was not worried, nor was her interest aroused at all.
A moment later she could see her step-mother seated on her porch and idling in the warm sun. The new home was a little frame house, neat and well built. There was a good fence around the yard and the garden, and behind the garden was an orchard of peach-trees and apple-trees. The house was guttered and behind the kitchen was a tiny grape-arbor, a hen-house, and a cistern—all strange appurtenances to Mavis. The two spoke only with a meeting of the eyes, and while the woman looked her curiosity she asked no questions, and Mavis volunteered no information.
"Did you see Steve a-talkin' to some fellers down the road?"
"Did ye hear whut they was talkin' about?"
"Somethin' about the toll-gates."
A long silence followed.
"The teacher said he was comin' over to see you and pap."
After another silence Mavis went on:
"The teacher is that rock-pecker Jason was always a-talkin' 'bout."
The woman's interest was aroused now, for she wondered if he were coming over to ask her any troublesome questions.
"Well, ain't that queer!"
"An' that boy an' gal who was a-stayin' with grandpap was thar at school too, an' she axed me to come over an' see her." This the step-mother was not surprised to hear, for she knew on whose farm they were living and why they were there, and she had her own reasons for keeping the facts from Mavis.
"Well, you oughter go."
"I am a-goin'."
Mavis missed the mountains miserably when she went to bed that night—missed the gloom and lift of them through her window, and the rolling sweep of the land under the moon looked desolate and lonely and more than ever strange. A loping horse passed on the turnpike, and she could hear it coming on the hard road far away and going far away; then a buggy and then a clattering group of horsemen, and indeed everything heralded its approach at a great distance. She missed the stillness of the hills, for on the night air were the barking of dogs, whinny of horses, lowing of cattle, the song of a night-prowling negro, and now and then the screech of a peacock. She missed Jason wretchedly, too, for there had been so much talk of him during the day, and she went to sleep with her lashes wet with tears. Some time during the night she was awakened by pistol-shots, and her dream of Jason made her think that she was at home again. But no mountains met her startled eyes through the window. Instead a red glare hung above the woods, there was the clatter of hoofs on the pike, and flames shot above the tops of the trees. Nor could it be a forest fire such as was common at home, for the woods were not thick enough. This land, it seemed, had troubles of its own, as did her mountains, but at least folks did not burn folks' houses in the hills.
On the top of a bushy foot-hill the old nag stopped, lifted her head, and threw her ears forward as though to gaze, like any traveller to a strange land, upon the rolling expanse beneath, and the lad on her back voiced her surprise and his own with a long, low whistle of amazement. He folded his hands on the pommel of his saddle and the two searched the plains below long and hard, for neither knew so much level land was spread out anywhere on the face of the earth. The lad had a huge pistol buckled around him; he looked half dead with sleeplessness and the old nag was weary and sore, for Jason was in flight from trouble back in those hills. He had kept his promise to his grandfather that summer, as little Aaron Honeycutt had kept his. Neither had taken part in the feud, and even after the truce came, each had kept out of the other's way. When Jason's corn was gathered there was nothing for him to do and the lad had grown restless. While roaming the woods one day, a pheasant had hurtled over his head. He had followed it, sighted it, and was sinking down behind a bowlder to get a rest for his pistol when the voices of two Honeycutts who had met in the road just under him stopped his finger on the trigger.
"That boy's a-goin' to bust loose some day," said one voice. "I've heerd him a-shootin' at a tree every day for a month up thar above his corn-field."
"Oh, no, he ain't," said the other. "He's just gittin' ready fer the man who shot his daddy."
"Well, who the hell WAS the feller?"
The other man laughed, lowered his voice, and the heart of the listening lad thumped painfully against the bowlder under him.
"Well, I hain't nuver told hit afore, but I seed with my own eyes a feller sneakin' outen the bushes ten minutes atter the shot was fired, an' hit was Babe Honeycutt."
A low whistle followed and the two rode on. The pheasant squatted to his limb undisturbed, and the lad lay gripping the bowlder with both hands. He rose presently, his face sick but resolute, slipped down into the road, and, swaying his head with rage, started up the hill toward the Honeycutt cove. On top of the hill the road made a sharp curve and around that curve, as fate would have it, slouched the giant figure of his mother's brother. Babe shouted pleasantly, stopped in sheer amazement when he saw Jason whip his revolver from his holster, and, with no movement to draw his own, leaped for the bushes. Coolly the lad levelled, and when his pistol spoke, Babe's mighty arms flew above his head and the boy heard his heavy body crash down into the undergrowth. In the terrible stillness that followed the boy stood shaking in his tracks—stood until he heard the clatter of horses' hoofs in the creek-bed far below. The two Honeycutts had heard the shot, they were coming back to see what the matter was, and Jason sped as if winged back down the creek. He had broken the truce, his grandfather would be in a rage, the Honeycutts would be after him, and those hills were no place for him. So all that day and through all that night he fled for the big settlements of the Blue-grass and but half consciously toward his mother and Mavis Hawn. The fact that Babe was his mother's brother weighed on his mind but little, for the webs of kinship get strangely tangled in a mountain feud and his mother could not and would not blame him. Nor was there remorse or even regret in his heart, but rather the peace of an oath fulfilled—a duty done.
The sun was just coming up over the great black bulks which had given the boy forth that morning to a new world. Back there its mighty rays were shattered against them, and routed by their shadows had fought helplessly on against the gloom of deep ravines—those fortresses of perpetual night—but, once they cleared the eminence where Jason sat, the golden arrows took level flight, it seemed, for the very end of the world. This was the land of the Blue-grass—the home of the rock-pecker, home of the men who had robbed him of his land, the refuge to his Cousin Steve, his mother, and little Mavis, and now their home. He could see no end of the land, for on and on it rolled, and on and on as far as it rolled were the low woodlands, the fields of cut corn— more corn than he knew the whole world held—and pastures and sheep and cattle and horses, and houses and white fences and big white barns. Little Jason gazed but he could not get his fill. Perhaps the old nag, too, knew those distant fields for corn, for with a whisk of her stubby tail she started of her own accord before the lad could dig his bare heels into her bony sides, and went slowly down. The log cabins had disappeared one by one, and most of the houses he now saw were framed. One, however, a relic of pioneer times, was of stone, and at that the boy looked curiously. Several were of red brick and one had a massive portico with great towering columns, and at that he looked more curiously still. Darkies were at work in the fields. He had seen only two or three in his life, he did not know there were so many in the world as he saw that morning, and now his skin ruffled with some antagonism ages deep. Everybody he met in the road or passed working in the fields gave him a nod and looked curiously at his big pistol, but nobody asked him his name or where he was going or what his business was; at that he wondered, for everybody in the mountains asked those questions of the stranger, and he had all the lies he meant to tell, ready for any emergency to cover his tracks from any possible pursuers. By and by he came to a road that stunned him. It was level and smooth and made, as he saw, of rocks pounded fine, and the old nag lifted her feet and put them down gingerly. And this road never stopped, and there was no more dirt road at all. By and by he noticed running parallel with the turnpike two shining lines of iron, and his curiosity so got the better of him that he finally got off his old nag and climbed the fence to get a better look at them. They were about four feet apart, fastened to thick pieces of timber, and they, too, like everything else, ran on and on, and he mounted and rode along them much puzzled. Presently far ahead of him there was a sudden, unearthly shriek, the rumbling sound of a coming storm, rolling black smoke beyond the crest of a little hill, and a swift huge mass swept into sight and, with another fearful blast, bore straight at him. The old nag snorted with terror, and in terror dashed up the hill, while the boy lay back and pulled helplessly on the reins. When he got her halted the thing had disappeared, and both boy and beast turned heads toward the still terrible sounds of its going. It was the first time either had ever seen a railroad train, and the lad, with a sickly smile that even he had shared the old nag's terror, got her back into the road. At the gate sat a farmer in his wagon and he was smiling.
"Did she come purty near throwin' you?"
"Huh!" grunted Jason contemptuously. "Whut was that?"
The farmer looked incredulous, but the lad was serious.
"That was a railroad train."
"Danged if I didn't think hit was a saw-mill comin' atter me."
The farmer laughed and looked as though he were going to ask questions, but he clucked to his horses and drove on, and Jason then and there swore a mighty oath to himself never again to be surprised by anything else he might see in this new land. All that day he rode slowly, giving his old nag two hours' rest at noon, and long before sundown he pulled up before a house in a cross- roads settlement, for the mountaineer does not travel much after nightfall.
"I want to git to stay all night," he said.
The man smiled and understood, for no mountaineer's door is ever closed to the passing stranger and he cannot understand that any door can be closed to him. Jason told the truth that night, for he had to ask questions himself—he was on his way to see his mother and his step-father and his cousin, who had moved down from the mountains, and to his great satisfaction he learned that it was a ride of but three hours more to Colonel Pendleton's.
When his host showed him to his room, the boy examined his pistol with such care while he was unbuckling it, that, looking up, he found a half-smile, half-frown, and no little suspicion, in his host's face; but he made no explanation, and he slept that night with one ear open, for he was not sure yet that no Honeycutt might be following him.
Toward morning he sprang from bed wide-awake, alert, caught up his pistol and crept to the window. Two horsemen were at the gate. The door opened below him, his host went out, and the three talked in whispers for a while. Then the horsemen rode away, his host came back into the house, and all was still again. For half an hour the boy waited, his every nerve alive with suspicion. Then he quietly dressed, left half a dollar on the washstand, crept stealthily down the stairs and out to the stable, and was soon pushing his old nag at a weary gallop through the dark.
The last sunset had been clear and Jack Frost had got busy. All the preceding day the clouds had hung low and kept the air chill so that the night was good for that arch-imp of Satan who has got himself enshrined in the hearts of little children. At dawn Jason saw the robe of pure white which the little magician had spun and drawn close to the breast of the earth. The first light turned it silver and showed it decked with flowers and jewels, that the old mother might mistake it, perhaps, for a wedding-gown instead of a winding-sheet; but the sun, knowing better, lifted, let loose his tiny warriors, and from pure love of beauty smote it with one stroke gold, and the battle ended with the blades of grass and the leaves in their scarlet finery sparkling with the joy of another day's deliverance and the fields grown gray and aged in a single night. Before the fight was quite over that morning, saddle-horses were stepping from big white barns in the land Jason was entering, and being led to old-fashioned stiles; buggies, phaetons, and rock-aways were emerging from turnpike gates; and rabbit-hunters moved, shouting, laughing, running races, singing, past fields sober with autumn, woods dingy with oaks and streaked with the fire of sumac and maple. On each side of the road new hemp lay in shining swaths, while bales of last year's crop were on the way to market along the roads. The farmers were turning over the soil for the autumn sowing of wheat, corn-shucking was over, and ragged darkies were straggling from the fields back to town. From every point the hunters came, turning in where a big square brick house with a Grecian portico stood far back in a wooded yard, with a fish-pond on one side and a great smooth lawn on the other. On the steps between the columns stood Colonel Pendleton and Gray and Marjorie welcoming the guests; the men, sturdy country youths, good types of the beef-eating young English squire—sunburnt fellows with big frames, open faces, fearless eyes, and a manner that was easy, cordial, kindly, independent; the girls midway between the types of brunette and blonde, with a leaning toward the latter type, with hair that had caught the light of the sun, radiant with freshness and good health and strength; round of figure, clear of eye and skin, spirited, soft of voice, and slow of speech. Soon a cavalcade moved through a side-gate of the yard, through a Blue-grass woodland, and into a sweep of stubble and ragweed; and far up the road on top of a little hill the mountain boy stopped his old mare and watched a strange sight in a strange land—a hunt without dog, stick, or gun. A high ringing voice reached his ears clearly, even that far away:
"Form a line!"
And the wondering lad saw man and woman aligning themselves like cavalry fifteen feet apart and moving across the field—the men in leggings or high boots, riding with the heel low and the toes turned according to temperament; the girls with a cap, a derby, or a beaver with a white veil, and the lad's eye caught one of them quickly, for a red tam-o'-shanter had slipped from her shining hair and a broad white girth ran around both her saddle and her horse. There was one man on a sorrel mule and he was the host at the big house, for Colonel Pendleton had surrendered every horse he had to a guest. Suddenly there came a yell—the rebel yell—and a horse leaped forward. Other horses leaped too, everybody yelled in answer, and the cavalcade swept forward. There was a massing of horses, the white girth flashing in the midst of the melee, a great crash and much turning, twisting, and sawing of bits, and then all dashed the other way, the white girth in the lead, and the boy's lips fell apart in wonder. A black thoroughbred was making a wide sweep, an iron-gray was cutting in behind, and all were sweeping toward him. Far ahead of them he saw a frightened rabbit streaking through the weeds. As it passed him the lad gave a yell, dug his heels into the old mare, and himself swept down the pike, drawing his revolver and firing as he rode. Five times the pistol spoke to the wondering hunters in pursuit, at the fifth the rabbit tumbled heels over head and a little later the hunters pulled their horses in around a boy holding a rabbit high in one hand, a pistol in the other, and his eager face flushed with pride in his marksmanship and the comradeship of the hunt. But the flush died into quick paleness, so hostile were the faces, so hostile were the voices that assailed him, and he dropped the rabbit quickly and began shoving fresh cartridges into the chambers of his gun.
"What do you mean, boy," shouted an angry voice, "shooting that rabbit?"
The boy looked dazed.
"Why, wasn't you atter him?"
He looked around and in a moment he knew several of them, but nobody, it was plain, remembered him.
The girl with the white girth was Marjorie, the boy on the black thoroughbred was Gray, and coming in an awkward gallop on the sorrel mule was Colonel Pendleton. None of these people could mean to do him harm, so Jason dropped his pistol in his holster and, with a curious dignity for so ragged an atom, turned in silence away, and only the girl with the white girth noticed the quiver of his lips and the angry starting of tears.
As he started to mount the old mare, the excited yells coming from the fields were too much for him, and he climbed back on the fence to watch. The hunters had parted in twain, the black thoroughbred leading one wing, the iron-gray the other—both after a scurrying rabbit. Close behind the black horse was the white girth and close behind was a pony in full run. Under the brow of the hill they swept and parallel with the fence, and as they went by the boy strained eager widening eyes, for on the pony was his cousin Mavis Hawn, bending over her saddle and yelling like mad. This way and that poor Mollie swerved, but every way her big startled eyes turned, that way she saw a huge beast and a yelling demon bearing down on her. Again the horses crashed, the pony in the very midst. Gray threw himself from his saddle and was after her on foot. Two others swung from their saddles, Mollie made several helpless hops, and the three scrambled for her. The riders in front cried for those behind to hold their horses back, but they crowded on and Jason rose upright on the fence to see who should be trampled down. Poor Mollie was quite hemmed in now, there was no way of escape, and instinctively she shrank frightened to the earth. That was the crucial instant, and down went Gray on top of her as though she were a foot-ball, and the quarry was his. Jason saw him give her one blow behind her long ears and then, holding a little puff of down aloft, look about him, past Marjorie to Mavis. A moment later he saw that rabbit's tail pinned to Mavis's cap, and a sudden rage of jealousy nearly shook him from the fence. He was too far away to see Marjorie's smile, but he did see her eyes rove about the field and apparently catch sight of him, and as the rest turned to the hunt she rode straight for him, for she remembered the distress of his face and he looked lonely.
"Little boy," she called, and the boy stared with amazement and rage, but the joke was too much for him and he laughed scornfully.
"Little gal," he mimicked, "air you a-talkin' to me?"
The girl gasped, reddened, lifted her chin haughtily, and raised her riding-whip to whirl away from the rude little stranger, but his steady eyes held hers until a flash of recognition came—and she smiled.
"Well, I never—Uncle Bob!" she cried excitedly and imperiously, and as the colonel lumbered toward her on his sorrel mount, she called with sparkling eyes, "don't you know him?"
The puzzled face of the colonel broke into a hearty smile.
"Well, bless my soul, it's Jason. You've come up to see your folks?"
And then he explained what Marjorie meant to explain.
"We're not hunting with guns—we just chase 'em. Hang your artillery on a fence-rail, bring your horse through that gate, and join us."
He turned and Marjorie, with him, called back over her shoulder: "Hurry up now, Jason."
Little Jason sat still, but he saw Marjorie ride straight for the pony, he heard her cry to Mavis, saw her wave one hand toward him, and then Mavis rode for him at a gallop, waving her whip to him as she came. The boy gave no answering signal, but sat still, hard- eyed, cool. Before she was within twenty yards of him he had taken in every detail of the changes in her and the level look of his eyes stopped her happy cry, and made her grow quite pale with the old terror of giving him offence. Her hair looked different, her clothes were different, she wore gloves, and she had a stick in one hand with a head like a cane and a loop of leather at the other end. For these drawbacks, the old light in her eyes and face quite failed to make up, for while Jason looked, Mavis was looking, too, and the boy saw her eyes travelling him down from head to foot: somehow he was reminded of the way Marjorie had looked at him back in the mountains and somehow he felt that the change that he resented in Mavis went deeper than her clothes. The morbidly sensitive spirit of the mountaineer in him was hurt, the chasm yawned instead of closing, and all he said shortly was:
"Whar'd you git them new-fangled things?"
"Marjorie give 'em to me. She said fer you to bring yo' hoss in— hit's more fun than I ever knowed in my life up here."
"Hit is?" he half-sneered. "Well, you git back to yo' high- falutin' friends an' tell 'em I don't hunt nothin' that-a-way."
"I'll stop right now an' go home with ye. I guess you've come to see yo' mammy."
"Well, I hain't ridin' aroun' just fer my health exactly."
He had suddenly risen on the fence as the cries in the field swelled in a chorus. Mavis saw how strong the temptation within him was, and so, when he repeated for her to "go on back," the old habit of obedience turned her, but she knew he would soon follow.
The field was going mad now, horses were dashing and crashing together, the men were swinging to the ground and were pushed and trampled in a wild clutch for Mollie's long ears, and Jason could see that the contest between them was who should get the most game. The big mule was threshing the weeds like a tornado, and crossing the field at a heavy gallop he stopped suddenly at a ditch, the girth broke, and the colonel went over the long ears. There was a shriek of laughter, in which Jason from his perch joined, as with a bray of freedom the mule made for home. Apparently that field was hunted out now, and when the hunters crossed another pike and went into another field too far away for the boy to see the fun, he mounted his old mare and rode slowly after them. A little later Mavis heard a familiar yell, and Jason flew by her with his pistol flopping on his hip, his hat in his hand, and his face frenzied and gone wild. The thoroughbred passed him like a swallow, but the rabbit twisted back on his trail and Mavis saw Marjorie leap lightly from her saddle, Jason flung himself from his, and then both were hidden by the crush of horses around them, while from the midst rose sharp cries of warning and fear.
She saw Gray's face white with terror, and then she saw Marjorie picking herself up from the ground and Jason swaying dizzily on his feet with a rabbit in his hand.
"'Tain't nothin'," he said stoutly, and he grinned his admiration openly for Marjorie, who looked such anxiety for him. "You ain't afeerd o' nothin', air ye, an' I reckon this rabbit tail is a- goin' to you," and he handed it to her and turned to his horse. The boy had jerked Marjorie from under the thoroughbred's hoofs and then gone on recklessly after the rabbit, getting a glancing blow from one of those hoofs himself.
"Thank you, little—man," and Jason grinned again, but his head was dizzy and he did not ride after the crowd.
"I'm afeerd fer this ole nag," he lied to Colonel Pendleton, for he was faint at the stomach and the world had begun to turn around. Then he made one clutch for the old nag's mane, missed it, and rolled senseless to the ground.
Not long afterward he opened his eyes to find his head in the colonel's lap, Marjorie bathing his forehead with a wet handkerchief, and Gray near by, still a little pale from remorse for his carelessness and Marjorie's narrow escape, and Mavis the most unconcerned of all—and he was much ashamed. Rudely he brushed Marjorie's consoling hand away and wriggled away from the colonel to his knees.
"Shucks!" he said, with great disgust.
The shadows were stretching fast, it was too late to try another field, so back they started through the radiant air, laughing, talking, bantering, living over the incidents of the day, the men with one leg swung for rest over the pommel of their saddles, the girls with habits disordered and torn, hair down, and all tired, but all flushed, clear-eyed, happy. The leaves—russet, gold and crimson—were dropping to the autumn-greening earth, the sunlight was as yellow as the wings of a butterfly, and on the horizon was a faint haze that shadowed the coming Indian summer. But still it was warm enough for a great spread on the lawn, and what a feast for mountain eyes—chicken, turkey, cold ham, pickles, croquettes, creams, jellies, beaten biscuits. And what happy laughter and thoughtful courtesy and mellow kindness—particularly to the little mountain pair, for in the mountains they had given the Pendletons the best they had and now the best was theirs. Inside fires were being lighted in the big fireplaces, and quiet, solid, old-fashioned English comfort everywhere the blaze brought out.
Already two darky fiddlers were waiting on the back porch for a dram, and when the darkness settled the fiddles were talking old tunes and nimble feet were busy. Little Jason did his wonderful dancing and Gray did his; and round about, the window-seats and the tall columns of the porch heard again from lovers what they had been listening to for so long. At midnight the hunters rode forth again in pairs into the crisp, brilliant air and under the kindly moon, Mavis jogging along beside Jason on Marjorie's pony, for Marjorie would not have it otherwise. No wonder that Mavis loved the land.
"I jerked the gal outen the way," explained Jason, "'cause she was a gal an' had no business messin' with men folks."
"Of co'se," Mavis agreed, for she was just as contemptuous as he over the fuss that had been made of the incident.
"But she ain't afeerd o' nothin'."
This was a little too much.
"I ain't nuther."
"Co'se you ain't."
There was no credit for Mavis—her courage was a matter of course; but with the stranger-girl, a "furriner"—that was different. There was silence for a while.
"Wasn't it lots o' fun, Jasie?"
"Shore!" was the absent-minded answer, for Jason was looking at the strangeness of the night. It was curious not to see the big bulks of the mountains and to see so many stars. In the mountains he had to look straight up to see stars at all and now they hung almost to the level of his eyes.
"How's the folks?" asked Mavis.
"Stirrin'. Air ye goin' to school up here?"
"Yes, an' who you reckon the school-teacher is?"
Jason shook his head.
"Well, by Heck."
"An' he's always axin' me about you an' if you air goin' to school."
For a while more they rode in silence.
"I went to that new furrin school down in the mountains," yawned the boy, "fer 'bout two hours. They're gittin' too high-falutin' to suit me. They tried to git me to wear gal's stockin's like they do up here an' I jes' laughed at 'em. Then they tried to git me to make up beds an' I tol' 'em I wasn't goin' to wear gal's clothes ner do a gal's work, an' so I run away."
He did not tell his reason for leaving the mountains altogether, for Mavis, too, was a girl, and he did not confide in women—not yet.
But the girl was woman enough to remember that the last time she had seen him he had said that he was going to come for her some day. There was no sign of that resolution, however, in either his manner or his words now, and for some reason she was rather glad.
"Every boy wears clothes like that up here. They calls 'em knickerbockers."
"Huh!" grunted Jason. "Hit sounds like 'em."
"Air ye still shootin' at that ole tree?"
"Yep, an' I kin hit the belly-band two shots out o' three."
Mavis raised her dark eyes with a look of apprehension, for she knew what that meant; when he could hit it three times running he was going after the man who had killed his father. But she asked no more questions, for while the boy could not forbear to boast about his marksmanship, further information was beyond her sphere and she knew it.
When they came to the lane leading to her home, Jason turned down it of his own accord.
"How'd you know whar we live?"
"I was here this mornin' an' I seed my mammy. Yo' daddy wasn't thar."
Mavis smiled silently to herself; he had found out thus where she was and he had followed her. At the little stable Jason unsaddled the horses and turned both out in the yard while Mavis went within, and Steve Hawn appeared at the door in his underclothes when Jason stepped upon the porch.
"Hello, Steve!" answered the boy, but they did not shake hands, not because of the hard feeling between them, but because it was not mountain custom.
"Come on in an' lay down."
Mavis had gone upstairs, but she could hear the voices below her. If Mavis had been hesitant about asking questions, as had been the boy's mother as well, Steve was not. "Whut'd you come up here fer?"
"Same reason as you once left the mountains—I got inter trouble."
Steve was startled and he frowned, but the boy gazed coolly back into his angry eyes.
"Whut kind o' trouble?"
"Same as you—I shot a feller," said the boy imperturbably.
Little Mavis heard a groan from her step-mother, an angry oath from her father, and a curious pang of horror pierced her.
Silence followed below and the girl lay awake and trembling in her bed.
"Who was it?" Steve asked at last.
"That's my business," said little Jason. The silence was broken no more, and Mavis lay with new thoughts and feelings racking her brain and her heart. Once she had driven to town with Marjorie and Gray, and a man had come to the carriage and cheerily shaken hands with them both. After he was gone Gray looked very grave and Marjorie was half unconsciously wiping her right hand with her handkerchief.
"He killed a man," was Marjorie's horrified whisper of explanation, and now if they should hear what she had heard they would feel the same way toward her own cousin, Jason Hawn. She had never had such a feeling in the mountains, but she had it now, and she wondered whether she could ever be quite the same toward Jason again.
Christmas was approaching and no greater wonder had ever dawned on the lives of Mavis and Jason than the way these people in the settlements made ready for it. In the mountains many had never heard of Christmas and few of Christmas stockings, Santa Claus, and catching Christmas gifts—not even the Hawns, But Mavis and Jason had known of Christmas, had celebrated it after the mountain way, and knew, moreover, what the Blue-grass children did not know, of old Christmas as well, which came just twelve days after the new. At midnight of old Christmas, so the old folks in the mountains said, the elders bloomed and the beasts of the field and the cattle in the barn kneeled lowing and moaning, and once the two children had slipped out of their grandfather's house to the barn and waited to watch the cattle and to listen to them, but they suffered from the cold, and when they told what they had done next morning, their grandfather said they had not waited long enough, for it happened just at midnight; so when Mavis and Jason told Marjorie and Gray of old Christmas they all agreed they would wait up this time till midnight sure.
As for new Christmas in the hills, the women paid little attention to it, and to the men it meant "a jug of liquor, a pistol in each hand, and a galloping nag." Always, indeed, it meant drinking, and target-shooting to see "who should drink and who should smell," for the man who made a bad shot got nothing but a smell from the jug until he had redeemed himself. So, Steve Hawn and Jason got ready in their own way and Mavis and Martha Hawn accepted their rude preparations as a matter of course.
At four o'clock in the afternoon before Christmas Eve darkies began springing around the corners of the twin houses, and from closets and from behind doors, upon the white folks and shouting "Christmas gift," for to the one who said the greeting first the gift came, and it is safe to say that no darky in the Blue-grass was caught that day. And the Pendleton clan made ready to make merry. Kinspeople gathered at the old general's ancient home and at the twin houses on either side of the road. Stockings were hung up and eager-eyed children went to restless dreams of their holiday king. Steve Hawn, too, had made ready with boxes of cartridges and two jugs of red liquor, and he and Jason did not wait for the morrow to make merry. And Uncle Arch Hawn happened to come in that night, but he was chary of the cup, and he frowned with displeasure at Jason, who was taking his dram with Steve like a man, and he showed displeasure before he rode away that night by planting a thorn in the very heart of Jason's sensitive soul. When he had climbed on his horse he turned to Jason.
"Jason," he drawled, "you can come back home now when you git good an' ready. Thar ain't no trouble down thar just now, an' Babe Honeycutt ain't lookin' fer you."
Jason gasped. He had not dared to ask a single question about the one thing that had been torturing his curiosity and his soul, and Arch was bringing it out before them all as though it were the most casual and unimportant matter in the world. Steve and his wife looked amazed and Mavis's heart quickened.
"Babe ain't lookin' fer ye," Arch drawled on, "he's laughin' at ye. I reckon you thought you'd killed him, but he stumbled over a root an' fell down just as you shot. He says you missed him a mile. He says you couldn't hit a barn in plain daylight." And he started away.
A furious oath broke from Jason's gaping mouth, Steve laughed, and if the boy's pistol had been in his hand, he might in his rage have shown Arch as he rode away what his marksmanship could be even in the dark, but even with his uncle's laugh, too, coming back to him he had to turn quickly into the house and let his wrath bite silently inward.
But Mavis's eyes were like moist stars.
"Oh, Jasie, I'm so glad," she said, but he only stared and turned roughly on toward the jug in the corner.
Before day next morning the children in the big houses were making the walls ring with laughter and shouts of joy. Rockets whizzed against the dawn, fire-crackers popped unceasingly, and now and then a loaded anvil boomed through the crackling air, but there was no happy awakening for little Jason. All night his pride had smarted like a hornet sting, his sleep was restless and bitter with dreams of revenge, and the hot current in his veins surged back and forth in the old channel of hate for the slayer of his father. Next morning his blood-shot eyes opened fierce and sullen and he started the day with a visit to the whiskey jug: then he filled his belt and pockets with cartridges.
Early in the afternoon Marjorie and Gray drove over with Christmas greetings and little presents. Mavis went out to meet them, and when Jason half-staggered out to the gate, the visitors called to him merrily and became instantly grave and still. Mavis flushed, Marjorie paled with horror and disgust, Gray flamed with wonder and contempt and quickly whipped up his horse—the mountain boy was drunk.
Jason stared after them, knowing something had suddenly gone wrong, and while he said nothing, his face got all the angrier, he rushed in for his belt and pistol, and shaking his head from side to side, swaggered out to the stable and began saddling his old mare. Mavis stood in the doorway frightened and ashamed, the boy's mother pleaded with him to come into the house and lie down, but without a word to either he mounted with difficulty and rode down the road. Steve Hawn, who had been silently watching him, laughed.
"Let him alone—he ain't goin' to do nothin'." Down the road the boy rode with more drunken swagger than his years in the wake of Marjorie and Gray—unconsciously in the wake of anything that was even critical, much less hostile, and in front of Gray's house he pulled up and gazed long at the pillars and the broad open door, but not a soul was in sight and he paced slowly on. A few hundred yards down the turnpike he pulled up again and long and critically surveyed a woodland. His eye caught one lone tree in the centre of an amphitheatrical hollow just visible over the slope of a hill. The look of the tree interested him, for its growth was strange, and he opened the gate and rode across the thick turf toward it. The bark was smooth, the tree was the size of a man's body, and he dismounted, nodding his head up and down with much satisfaction. Standing close to the tree, he pulled out his knife, cut out a square of the bark as high as the first button of his coat and moving around the trunk cut out several more squares at the same level.
"I reckon," he muttered, "that's whar his heart is yit, if I ain't growed too much."
Then he led the old mare to higher ground, came back, levelled his pistol, and moving in a circle around the tree, pulled the trigger opposite each square, and with every shot he grunted:
"Can't hit a barn, can't I, by Heck!"
In each square a bullet went home. Then he reloaded and walked rapidly around the tree, still firing.
"An' I reckon that's a-makin' some nail-holes fer his galluses!"
And reloading again he ran around the tree, firing.
"An' mebbe I couldn't still git him if I was hikin' fer the corner of a house an' was in a LEETLE grain of a hurry to git out o' HIS range."
Examining results at a close range, the boy was quite satisfied— hardly a shot had struck without a band three inches in width around the tree. There was one further test that he had not yet made; but he felt sober now and he drew a bottle from his hip- pocket and pulled at it hard and long. The old nag grazing above him had paid no more attention to the fusillade than to the buzzing of flies. He mounted her, and Gray, riding at a gallop to make out what the unearthly racket going on in the hollow was, saw the boy going at full speed in a circle about the tree, firing and yelling, and as Gray himself in a moment more would be in range, he shouted a warning. Jason stopped and waited with belligerent eyes as Gray rode toward him.
"I say, Jason," Gray smiled, "I'm afraid my father wouldn't like that—you've pretty near killed that tree."
Jason stared, amazed—
"Fust time I ever heerd of anybody not wantin' a feller to shoot at a tree."
Gray saw that he was in earnest and he kept on, smiling.
"Well, we haven't got as many trees here as you have down in the mountains, and up here they're more valuable."
The last words were unfortunate.
"Looks like you keer a heep fer yo' trees," sneered the mountain boy with a wave of his pistol toward a demolished woodland; "an' if our trees air so wuthless, whut do you furriners come down thar and rob us of 'em fer?"
The sneer, the tone, and the bitter emphasis on the one ugly word turned Gray's face quite red.
"You mustn't say anything like that to me," was his answer, and the self-control in his voice but helped make the mountain boy lose his at once and completely. He rode straight for Gray and pulled in, waving his pistol crazily before the latter's face, and Gray could actually hear the grinding of his teeth.
"Go git yo' gun! Git yo' gun!"
Gray turned very pale, but he showed no fear.
"I don't know what's the matter with you," he said steadily, "but you must be drunk."
"Go git yo' gun!" was the furious answer. "Go git yo' gun!"
"Boys don't fight with guns in this country, but—"
"You're a d—d coward," yelled Jason.
Gray's fist shot through the mist of rage that suddenly blinded him, catching Jason on the point of the chin, and as the mountain boy spun half around in his saddle, Gray caught the pistol in both hands and in the struggle both rolled, still clutching the weapon, to the ground, Gray saying with quiet fury:
"Drop that pistol and I'll lick hell out of you!"
There was no answer but the twist of Jason's wrist, and the bullet went harmlessly upward. Before he could pull the trigger again, the sinewy fingers of a man's hand closed over the weapon and pushed it flat with the earth, and Jason's upturned eyes looked into the grave face of the school-master. That face was stern and shamed Jason instantly. The two boys rose to their feet, and the mountain boy turned away from the school-master and saw Marjorie standing ten yards away white and terror-stricken, and her eyes when he met them blazed at him with a light that no human eye had ever turned on him before. The boy knew anger, rage, hate, revenge, but contempt was new to him, and his soul was filled with sudden shame that was no less strange, but the spirit in him was undaunted, and like a challenged young buck his head went up as he turned again to face his accuser.
"Were you going to shoot an unarmed boy?" asked John Burnham gravely.
"He hit me."
"You called him a coward."
"He hit me."
"He offered to fight you fist and skull."
"He had the same chance to git the gun that I had."
"He wasn't trying to get it in order to shoot you."
Jason made no answer and the school-master repeated:
"He offered to fight you fist and skull."
"I was too mad—but I'll fight him now."
"Boys don't fight in the presence of young ladies."
Gray spoke up and in his tone was the contempt that was in Marjorie's eyes, and it made the mountain boy writhe.
"I wouldn't soil my hands on you—now."
The school-master rebuked Gray with a gesture, but Jason was confused and sick now and he held out his hand for his pistol.
"I better be goin' now—this ain't no place fer me."
The school-master gravely handed the weapon to him.
"I'm coming over to have a talk with you, Jason," he said.
The boy made no answer. He climbed on his horse slowly. His face was very pale, and once only he swept the group with eyes that were badgered but no longer angry, and as they rested on Marjorie, there was a pitiful, lonely something in them that instantly melted her and almost started her tears. Then he rode silently and slowly away.
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."
"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:
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.
Little Mavis did not reach the hills. At sunrise a few miles down the road, the two met Steve Hawn on a borrowed horse, his pistol buckled around him and his face pale and sleepless.
"Whar you two goin'?" he asked roughly.
"Home," was Jason's short answer, and he felt Mavis's arm about his waist begin to tremble.
"Git off, Mavis, an' git up hyeh behind me. Yo' home's with me."
Jason valiantly reached for his gun, but Mavis caught his hand and, holding it, slipped to the ground. "Don't, Jasie—I'll come, pap, I'll come." Whereat Steve laughed and Jason, raging, saw her ride away behind her step-father, clutching him about the waist with one arm and with the other bent over her eyes to shield her tears.
A few miles farther, Jason came on the smoking, charred remains of a toll-gate, and he paused a moment wondering if Steve might not have had a hand in that, and rode on toward the hills. Two hours later the school-master's horse shied from those black ruins, and John Burnham kept on toward school with a troubled face. To him the ruins meant the first touch of the writhing tentacles of the modern trust and the Blue-grass Kentuckian's characteristic way of throwing them off, for turnpikes of white limestone, like the one he travelled, thread the Blue-grass country like strands of a spider's web. The spinning of them started away back in the beginning of the last century. That far back, the strand he followed pierced the heart of the region from its chief town to the Ohio and was graded for steam-wagons that were expected to roll out from the land of dreams. Every few miles on each of these roads sat a little house, its porch touching the very edge of the turnpike, and there a long pole, heavily weighted at one end and pulled down and tied fast to the porch, blocked the way. Every traveller, except he was on foot, every drover of cattle, sheep, hogs, or mules, must pay his toll before the pole was lifted and he could go on his way. And Burnham could remember the big fat man who once a month, in a broad, low buggy, drawn by two swift black horses, would travel hither and thither, stopping at each little house to gather in the deposits of small coins. As time went on, this man and a few friends began to gather in as well certain bits of scattered paper that put the turnpike webs like reins into a few pairs of hands, with the natural, inevitable result: fewer men had personal need of good roads, the man who parted with his bit of paper lost his power of protest, and while the traveller paid the small toll, the path that he travelled got steadily worse. A mild effort to arouse a sentiment for county control was made, and this failing, the Kentuckian had straightway gone for firebrand and gun. The dormant spirit of Ku-Klux awakened, the night-rider was born again, and one by one the toll-gates were going up in flame and settling back in ashes to the mother earth. The school- master smiled when he thought of the result of one investigation in the county by law. A sturdy farmer was haled before the grand jury.
"Do you know the perpetrators of the unlawful burning of the toll- gate on the Cave Hill Pike?" asked the august body. The farmer ran his fearless eyes down the twelve of his peers and slowly walked the length of them, pointing his finger at this juror and that.
"Yes, I do," he said quietly, "and so do you—and you and YOU. Your son was in it—and yours—and mine; and you were in it yourself. Now, what are you going to do about it?" And, unrebuked and unrestrained, he turned and walked out of the room, leaving the august body, startled, grimly smiling and reduced to a helpless pulp of inactivity.
That morning Mavis was late to school, and the school-master and Gray and Marjorie all saw that she had been weeping. Only Marjorie suspected the cause, but at little recess John Burnham went to her to ask where Jason was, and Gray was behind him with the same question on his lips. And when Mavis burst into tears, Marjorie answered for her and sat down beside her and put her arms around the mountain girl. After school she even took Mavis home behind her, and Gray rode along with them on his pony. Steve Hawn was sitting on his little porch smoking when they rode up, and he came down and hospitably asked them to "light and hitch their beastes," and the black-haired step-mother called from the doorway for them to "come in an' rest a spell." Gray and Marjorie concealed with some difficulty their amusement at such queer phrases of welcome, and a wonder at the democratic ease of the two and their utter unconsciousness of any social difference between the lords and ladies of the Blue-grass and poor people from the mountains, for the other tobacco tenants were not like these. And there was no surprise on the part of the man, the woman, or the little girl when a sudden warm impulse to relieve loneliness led Marjorie to ask Mavis to go to her own home and stay all night with her.