HotFreeBooks.com
The Heart Of The Hills
by John Fox, Jr.
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse

"I wouldn't let anybody out there say this about us, nor would you, and maybe if I thought I was going to live many years longer I might not be saying it now, for some Kentuckian might yet make me eat my words."

At this the eyes of the two boys crossed and both smiled faintly, for though the sick man had been a generous liver, his palate could never have known the taste of one of his own words.

"I don't know—but our ambition is either dying or sinking to a lower plane, and what a pity, for the capacity is still here to keep the old giants still alive if the young men could only see, feel, and try. And if I were as young as one of you two boys, I'd try to find and make the appeal."

He turned his brilliant eyes to Jason and looked for a moment silently.

"The death-knell of me and mine has been sounded unless boys like Gray here keep us alive after death, but the light of your hills is only dawning. It's a case of the least shall be first, for your pauper counties are going to be the richest in the State. The Easterners are buying up our farms as they would buy a yacht or a motor-car, the tobacco tenants are getting their mites of land here and there, and even you mountaineers, when you sell your coal lands, are taking up Blue-grass acres. Don't let the Easterner swallow you, too. Go home, and, while you are getting rich, enrich your citizenship, and you and Gray help land-locked, primitive old Kentucky take her place among the modern sisterhood that is making the nation. To use a phrase of your own—get busy, boys, get busy after I am gone."

And then Colonel Pendleton laughed.

"I am hardly the one to say all this, or rather I am just the one because I am a—failure."

"Father."

The word came like a sob from Gray.

"Oh, yes, I am—but I have never lied except for others, and I have not been afraid."

Again his face went toward the window.

"Even now," he added in a solemn whisper that was all to himself, "I believe, and am not afraid."

Presently he lifted himself on one elbow and with Gray's assistance got to a sitting posture. Then he pulled a paper from beneath his pillow.

"I want to tell you something, Jason. That was all true, every word you said the first time Gray and I saw you at your grandfather's house, and I want you to know now that your land was bought over my protest and without my knowledge. My own interest in the general purchase was in the form of stock, and here it is."

Jason's heart began to beat violently.

"Whatever happens to me, this farm will have to be sold, but there will be something left for Gray. This stock is in Gray's name, and it is worth now just about what would have been a fair price for your land five years after it was bought. It is Gray's, and I am going to give it to him." He handed the paper to bewildered Gray, who looked at it dazedly, went with it to the window, and stood there looking out—his father watching him closely.

"You might win in a suit, Jason, I know, but I also know that you could never collect even damages."

At these words Gray wheeled.

"Then this belongs to you, Jason."

The father smiled and nodded approval and assent.

That night there was a fusillade of shots, and Jason and Gray rushed out with a Winchester in hand to see one barn in flames and a tall figure with a firebrand sneaking toward the other. Both fired and the man dropped, rose to his feet, limped back to the edge of the woods, and they let him disappear. But all the night, fighting the fire and on guard against another attack, Jason was possessed with apprehension and fear—that limping figure looked like Steve Hawn. So at the first streak of dawn he started for his mother's home, and when that early he saw her from afar standing on the porch and apparently looking for him, he went toward her on a run. She looked wild-eyed, white, and sleepless, but she showed no signs of tears.

"Where's Steve, mammy?" called Jason in a panting whisper, and when she nodded back through the open door his throat eased and he gulped his relief.

"Is he all right?"

She looked at him queerly, tried to speak, and began to tremble so violently that he stepped quickly past her and stopped on the threshold—shuddering. A human shape lay hidden under a brilliantly colored quilt on his mother's bed, and the rigidity of death had moulded its every outline.

"I reckon you've done it at last, Jasie," said a dead, mechanical voice behind him.

"Good God, mammy—it must have been Gray or me."

"One of you, shore. He said he saw you shoot at the same time, and only one of you hit him. I hope hit was you."

Jason turned—horrified, but she was calm and steady now.

"Hit was fitten fer you to be the one. Babe never killed yo' daddy, Jasie—hit was Steve."



XLII

Gray Pendleton, hearing from a house-servant of the death of Steve Hawn, hurried over to offer his help and sympathy, and Martha Hawn, too quick for Jason's protest, let loose the fact that the responsibility for that death lay between the two. To her simple faith it was Jason's aim that the intervening hand of God had directed, but she did not know what the law of this land might do to her boy, and perhaps her motive was to shield him if possible. While she spoke, one of her hands was hanging loosely at her side and the other was clenched tightly at her breast.

"What have you got there, mammy?" said Jason gently. She hesitated, and at last held out her hand—in the palm lay a misshapen bullet.

"Steve give me this—hit was the one that got him, he said. He said mebbe you boys could tell whichever one's gun hit come from."

Both looked at the piece of battered, blood-stained lead with fascinated horror until Gray, with a queer little smile, took it from her hand, for he knew, what Jason did not, that the night before they had used guns of a different calibre, and now his heart and brain worked swiftly and to a better purpose than he meant, or would ever know.

"Come on, Jason, you and I will settle the question right now."

And, followed by mystified Jason, he turned from the porch and started across the yard. Standing in the porch, the mother saw the two youths stop at the fence, saw Gray raise his right hand high, and then the piece of lead whizzed through the air and dropped with hardly more than the splash of a raindrop in the centre of the pond. The mother understood and she gulped hard. For a moment the two talked and she saw them clasp hands. Then Gray turned toward home and Jason came slowly back to the house. The boy said nothing, the stony calm of the mother's face was unchanged—their eyes met and that was all.

An hour later, John Burnham came over, told Jason to stay with his mother, and went forthwith to town. Within a few hours all was quickly, quietly done, and that night Jason started with his mother and the body of Mavis's father back to the hills. The railroad had almost reached the county-seat now, and at the end of it old Jason Hawn and Mavis were waiting in the misty dawn with two saddled horses and a spring wagon. The four met with a handshake, a grave "how-dye," and no further speech. And thus old Jason and Martha Hawn jolted silently ahead, and little Jason and Mavis followed silently behind. Once or twice Jason turned to look at her. She was in black, and the whiteness of her face, unstained with tears, lent depth and darkness to her eyes, but the eyes were never turned toward him.

When they entered town there were Hawns in front of one store and one hotel on one side of the street. There were Honeycutts in front of one store and one hotel on the other side, and Jason saw the lowering face of little Aaron, and towering in one group the huge frame of Babe Honeycutt. Silently the Hawns fell in behind on horseback, and on foot, and gravely the Honeycutts watched the procession move through the town and up the winding road.

The pink-flecked cups of the laurel were dropping to the ground, the woods were starred with great white clusters of rhododendron, wood-thrushes, unseen, poured golden rills of music from every cool ravine, air and sunlight were heavy with the richness of June, and every odor was a whisper, every sound a voice, and every shaking leaf a friendly little beckoning hand—all giving him welcome home. The boy began to choke with memories, but Mavis still gave no sign. Once she turned her head when they passed her little log school-house where was a little group of her pupils who had not known they were to have a holiday that day, and whose faces turned awe-stricken when they saw the reason, and sympathetic when Mavis gave them a kindly little smile. Up the creek there and over the sloping green plain of the tree-tops hung a cloud of smoke from the mines. A few moments more and they emerged from an arched opening of trees. The lightning-rod of old Jason's house gleamed high ahead, and on the sunny crest of a bare little knoll above it were visible the tiny homes built over the dead in the graveyard of the Hawns. And up there, above the murmuring sweep of the river, and with many of his kin who had died in a similar way, they laid "slick Steve" Hawn. The old circuit rider preached a short funeral sermon, while Mavis and her mother stood together, the woman dry-eyed, much to the wonder of the clan, the girl weeping silently at last, and Jason behind them—solemn, watchful, and with his secret working painfully in his heart. He had forbade his mother to tell Mavis, and perhaps he would never tell her himself; for it might be best for her never to know that her father had raised the little mound under which his father slept but a few yards away, and that in turn his hands, perhaps, were lowering Steve Hawn into his grave.

From the graveyard all went to old Jason's house, for the old man insisted that Martha Hawn must make her home with him until young Jason came back to the mountains for good. Until then Mavis, too, would stay there with Jason's mother, and with deep relief the boy saw that the two women seemed drawn to each other closer than ever now. In the early afternoon old Jason limped ahead of him to the barn to show his stock, and for the first time Jason noticed how feeble his grandfather was and how he had aged during his last sick spell. His magnificent old shoulders had drooped, his walk was shuffling, and even the leonine spirit of his bushy brows and deep-set eyes seemed to have lost something of its old fire. But that old fire blazed anew when the old man told him about the threats and insults of little Aaron Honeycutt, and the story of Mavis and Gray.

"Mavis in thar," he rumbled, "stood up fer him agin me—agin ME. She 'lowed thar wasn't a Hawn fitten to be kinfolks o' his even by marriage, less'n 'twas you."

"ME?"

"An' she told me—ME—to mind my own business. Is that boy Gray comin' back hyeh?"

"Yes, sir, if his father gets well, and maybe he'll come anyhow."

"Well, that gal in thar is plum' foolish about him, but I'm goin' to let you take keer o' all that now."

Jason answered nothing, for the memory of Gray's worshipping face, when he went down the walk with Marjorie at Gray's own home, came suddenly back to him, and the fact that Mavis was yet in love with Gray began to lie with sudden heaviness on his mind and not lightly on his heart.

"An' as fer little Aaron Honeycutt—"

Over the barn-yard gate loomed just then the huge shoulders of Babe Honeycutt coming from the house where he had gone to see his sister Martha. Jason heard the shuffling of big feet and he turned to see Babe coming toward him fearlessly, his good-natured face in a wide smile and his hand outstretched. Old Jason peered through his spectacles with some surprise, and then grunted with much satisfaction when they shook hands.

"Well, Jason, I'm glad you air beginnin' to show some signs o' good sense. This feud business has got to stop—an' now that you two air shakin' hands, hit all lays betwixt you and little Aaron."

Babe colored and hesitated.

"That's jus' whut I wanted to say to Jason hyeh. Aaron's drinkin' a good deal now. I hears as how he's a-threatenin' some, but if Jason kind o' keeps outen his way an' they git together when he's sober, hit'll be easy."

"Yes," said old Jason, grimly, "but I reckon you Honeycutts had better keep Aaron outen his way a leetle, too."

"I'm a-doin' all I can," said Babe earnestly, and he slouched away.

"Got yo' gun, Jason?"

"No."

"Well, you kin have mine till you git away again. I want all this feud business stopped, but I hain't goin' to have you shot down like a turkey at Christmas by a fool boy who won't hardly know whut he's doin'."

Jason started for the house, but the old man stayed at the stable to give directions to a neighbor who had come to feed his stock. It sickened the boy to think that he must perhaps be drawn into the feud again, but he would not be foolish enough not to take all precaution against young Aaron. At the yard fence he stopped, seeing Mavis under an apple-tree with one hand clutching a low bough and her tense face lifted to the west. He could see that the hand was clenched tightly, for even the naked forearm was taut as a bowstring. The sun was going down in the little gap, above it already one pale star was swung, and upon it her eyes seemed to be fixed. She heard his step and he knew it, for he saw her face flush, but without looking around she turned into the house. That night she seemed to avoid the chance that he might speak to her alone, and the boy found himself watching her covertly and closely, for he recalled what Gray had said about her. Indeed, some change had taken place that was subtle and extraordinary. He saw his mother deferring to her—leaning on her unconsciously. And old Jason, to the boy's amazement, was less imperious when she was around, moderated his sweeping judgments, looked to her from under his heavy brows, apparently for approval or to see that at least he gave no offence—deferred to her more than to any man or woman within the boy's memory. And Jason himself felt the emanation from her of some new power that was beginning to chain his thoughts to her. All that night Mavis was on his mind, and when he woke next morning it was Mavis, Mavis still. She was clear-eyed, calm, reserved when she told him good-by, and once only she smiled. Old Jason had brought out one of his huge pistols, but Mavis took it from his unresisting hands and Jason rode away unarmed. It was just as well, for as his train started, a horse and a wild youth came plunging down the riverbank, splashed across, and with a yell charged up to the station. Through the car window Jason saw that it was little Aaron, flushed of face and with a pistol in his hand, looking for him. A sudden storm of old instincts burst suddenly within him, and had he been armed he would have swung from the train and settled accounts then and there. As it was, he sat still and was borne away shaken with rage from head to foot.



XLIII

Commencement day was over, Jason Hawn had made his last speech in college, and his theme was "Kentucky." In all seriousness and innocence he had lashed the commonwealth for lawlessness from mountain-top to river-brim, and his own hills he had flayed mercilessly. In all seriousness and innocence, when he was packing his bag three hours later in "Heaven," he placed his big pistol on top of his clothes so that when the lid was raised, the butt of it would be within an inch of his right hand. On his way home he might meet little Aaron on the train, and he did not propose to be at Aaron's mercy again.

While the band played, ushers with canes wrapped with red, white, and blue ribbons had carried him up notes of congratulation, and among them was a card from Marjorie and a bouquet from her own garden. John Burnham's eyes sought his with pride and affection. The old president, handing him his diploma, said words that covered him with happy confusion and brought a cheer from his fellow-students. When he descended from the platform, Gray grasped his hand, and Marjorie with lips and eyes gave him ingenuous congratulations, as though the things that were between them had never been.

An hour later he drove with John Burnham through soldiers in the streets and past the Gatling-gun out into the country, and was deposited at the mouth of the lane. For the last time he went to the little cottage that had been his mother's home and walked slowly around garden and barn, taking farewell of everything except memories that he could never lose. Across the fields he went once more to Colonel Pendleton's, and there he found Gray radiant, for his father was better, and the doctor, who was just leaving, said that he might yet get well. And there was little danger now from the night riders, for the county judge had arranged a system of signals by bonfires through all the country around the town. He had watchers on top of the court-house, soldiers always ready, and motor-cars waiting below to take them to any place of disturbance if a bonfire blazed. So Gray said it was not good-by for them for long, for when his father was well enough he was coming back to the hills. Again the old colonel wished Jason well and patted him on the arm affectionately when they shook hands, and then Jason started for the twin house on the hill across the turnpike to tell Marjorie and her mother good-by.

An hour later Gray found Marjorie seated on a grape-vine bench under honeysuckles in her mother's old-fashioned garden, among flowers and bees. Jason had just told her good-by. For the last time he had felt the clasp of her hand, had seen the tears in her eyes, and now he was going for the last time through the fragrant fields—his face set finally for the hills.

"Father is better, the county judge has waked up, and there is no more danger from the night riders, and so I am going back to the mountains now myself."

"Jason has just gone."

"I know."

"Back to Mavis?"

"I don't know."

Marjorie smiled with faint mischief and grew serious.

"I wonder if you have had the same experience, Gray, that I've had with Mavis and Jason. There was never a time that I did not feel in both a mysterious something that always baffled me—a barrier that I couldn't pass, and knew I never could pass. I've felt it with Mavis, even when we were together in my own room late at night, talking our hearts to each other."

"I know—I've felt the same thing in Jason always."

"What is it?"

"I've heard John Burnham say it's a reserve, a reticence that all primitive people have, especially mountaineers; a sort of Indian- like stoicism, but less than the Indian's because the influences that produce it—isolation, loneliness, companionship with primitive wilds-have been a shorter while at work."

"That's what attracted me," said Marjorie frankly, "and I couldn't help always trying to break it down—but I never did. Was—was that what attracted you?" she asked naively.

"I don't know—but I felt it."

"And did you try to break it down?"

"No; it broke me down."

"Ah!" Marjorie looked very thoughtful for a moment. They were getting perilously near the old theme now, and Gray was getting grim and Marjorie petulant.

And then suddenly:

"Gray, did you ever ask Mavis to marry you?"

Gray reddened furiously and turned his face away.

"Yes," he said firmly. When he looked around again a hostile right shoulder was pointing at him, and over the other shoulder the girl was gazing at—he knew not what.

"Marjorie, you oughtn't to have asked me that. I can't explain very well. I—" He stumbled and

He stopped, for the girl had turned astonished eyes upon him.

"Explain what?" she asked with demure wonder. "It's all right. I came near asking Jason to marry me."

"Marjorie!" exploded Gray.

"Well!"

A negro boy burst down the path, panting:

"Miss Marjorie, yo' mother says you an' Mr. Gray got to come right away."

Both sprang to their feet, Gray white and Marjorie's mischievous face all quick remorse and tenderness. Together they went swiftly up the walk and out to the stile where Gray's horse and buggy were hitched, and without a word Marjorie, bareheaded as she was, climbed into the buggy and they silently sped through the fields.

Mrs. Pendleton met them at the door, her face white and her hands clenched tightly in front of her. Speechless with distress, she motioned them toward the door of the sick-room, and when the old colonel saw them coming together, his tired eyes showed such a leap of happiness that Gray, knowing that he misunderstood, had not the heart to undeceive him, and he looked helplessly to Marjorie. But that extraordinary young woman's own eyes answered the glad light in the colonel's, and taking bewildered Gray by the hand she dropped with him on one knee by the bedside.

"Yes, Uncle Bob," Gray heard her say tenderly, "Gray's not going back to the mountains. He's going to stay here with us, for you and I need him."

The old man laid a hand on the bright head of each, his eyes lighting with the happiness of his life's wish fulfilled, and chokingly he murmured:

"My children—Gray—Marjorie." And then his eyes rose above them to the woman who had glided in.

"Mary—look here."

She nodded, smiling tenderly, and Gray felt Marjorie rising to her feet.

"Call us, mother," she whispered.

Both saw her kneel, and then they were alone in the big hallway, and Gray, still dazed, was looking into Marjorie's eyes.

"Marjorie—Marjorie—do you—"

Her answer was a rush into his outstretched arms, and, locked fast, they stood heart to heart until the door opened behind them. Again hand in hand they kneeled side by side with the mother. The colonel's eyes dimmed slowly with the coming darkness, the smiling, pallid lips moved, and both leaned close to hear.

"Gray—Marjorie—Mary." His last glance turned from them to her, rested there, and then came the last whisper:

"Our children."



XLIV

Jason did not meet young Aaron on the train, though as he neared the county-seat he kept a close watch, whenever the train stopped at a station, on both doors of his car, with his bag on the seat in front of him unbuckled and unlocked. At the last station was one Honeycutt lounging about, but plainly evasive of him. There was a little group of Hawns about the Hawn store and hotel, and more Honeycutts and Hawns on the other side of the street farther down, but little Aaron did not appear. It seemed, as he learned a few minutes later, that both factions were in town for the meeting between Aaron and him, and later still he learned that young Honeycutt loped into town after Jason had started up the river and was much badgered about his late arrival. At the forks of the road Jason turned toward the mines, for he had been casually told by Arch Hawn that he would find his mother up that way. The old circuit rider's wife threw her arms around the boy when he came to her porch, and she smiled significantly when she told him that his mother had walked over the spur that morning to take a look at her old home, and that Mavis had gone with her.

Jason slowly climbed the spur. To his surprise he saw a spiral of smoke ascending on the other side, just where he once used to see it, but he did not hurry, for it might be coming from a miner's cabin that had been built near the old place. On top of the spur, however, he stopped-quite stunned. That smoke was coming out of his mother's old chimney. There was a fence around the yard, which was clear of weeds. The barn was rebuilt, there was a cow browsing near it, and near her were three or four busily rooting pigs. And stringing beans on the porch were his mother—and Mavis Hawn. Jason shouted his bewilderment, and the two women lifted their eyes. A high, shrill, glad answer came from his mother, who rose to meet him, but Mavis sat where she was with idle hands.

"Mammy!" cried Jason, for there was a rich color in the pallid face he had last seen, she looked years younger, and she was smiling. It was all the doing of Arch Hawn—a generous impulse or an act of justice long deferred.

"Why, Jason!" said his mother. "Arch is a-goin' to gimme back the farm fer my use as long as I live."

And Mavis had left the old circuit rider and come to live with her. The girl looked quiet, placid, content—only, for a moment, she sank the deep lights of her eyes deep into his and the scrutiny seemed to bring her peace, for she drew a long breath and at him her eyes smiled. There was more when later Mavis had strolled down toward the barn to leave the two alone.

"Is Mavis goin' to live with you all the time?"

"Hit looks like hit—she brought over ever'thing she has."

The mother smiled suddenly, looked to see that the girl was out of sight, and then led the way into the house and up into the attic, where she reached behind the rafters.

"Look hyeh," she said, and she pulled into sight the fishing-pole and the old bow and arrow that Jason had given Mavis years and years ago.

"She fetched 'em over when I wasn't hyeh an' HID 'em."

Slyly the mother watched her son's face, and though Jason said nothing, she got her reward when she saw him color faintly. She was too wise to say anything more herself, nor did she show any consciousness when the three were together in the porch, nor make any move to leave them alone. The two women went to their work again, and while Mavis asked nothing, the mother plied Jason with questions about Colonel and Mrs. Pendleton and Marjorie and Gray, and had him tell about his graduating speech and Commencement Day. The girl listened eagerly, though all the time her eyes were fixed on her busy fingers, and when Jason told that Gray would most likely come back to the hills, now that his father would get well, she did not even lift her eyes and the calm of her face changed not at all.

A little later Jason started back over to the mines. From the corner of the yard he saw the path he used to follow when he was digging for his big seam of coal. He passed his trysting-place with Mavis on top of the spur, walled in now, as then, with laurel and rhododendron. Again he felt the same pang of sympathy when he saw her own cabin on the other side, tenanted now by negro miners. Together their feet had beat every road, foot-path, trail, the rocky bed of every little creek that interlaced in the great green cup of the hills about him. So that all that day he walked with memories and Mavis Hawn; all that day it was good to think that his mother's home was hers, that he would find her there when his day's work was done, and that she would be lonesome no more. And it was a comfort when he went down the spur before sunset to see her in the porch, to get her smile of welcome that for all her calm sense of power seemed shy, to see her moving around the house, helping his mother in the kitchen, and, after the old way, waiting on him at the table. Jason slept in the loft of his childhood that night, and again he pulled out the old bow and arrow, bandling them gently and looking at them long. From his bed he could look through the same little window out on the night. The trees were full-leafed and as still as though sculptured from the hill of broken shadows and flecks of moonlight that had paled on their way through thin mists just rising. High from the tree- trunks came the high vibrant whir of toads, the calls of katydids were echoing through forest aisles, and from the ground crickets chirped modestly upward. The peace and freshness and wildness of it all! Ah, God, it was good to be home again!



XLV

Next day Jason carried over to Mavis and his mother the news of the death of Colonel Pendleton, and while Mavis was shocked she asked no question about Gray. The next day a letter arrived from Gray saying he would not come back to the hills—and again Mavis was silent. A week later Jason was made assistant superintendent in Gray's place by the president of Morton Sanders' coal company, and this Jason knew was Gray's doing. He had refused to accept the stock Gray had offered him, and Gray was thus doing his best for him in another way. Moreover, Jason was to be quartered in Gray's place at the superintendent's little cottage, far up the ravine in which the boy had unearthed the great seam of coal, a cottage that had been built under Gray's personal supervision and with a free rein, for it must have a visitor's room for any officer or stockholder who might come that way, a sitting-room with a wood fireplace, and Colonel Pendleton had meant, moreover, that his son should have all the comfort possible. Jason dropped on the little veranda under a canopy of moon-flowers, exultant but quite overcome. How glad and proud his mother would be—and Mavis. While he sat there Arch Hawn rode by, his face lighted up with a humorous knowing smile.

"How about it?" he shouted.

"D'you have anything to do with this?"

"Oh, just a leetle."

"Well, you won't be sorry."

"Course not. What'd I tell ye, son? You go in now an' dig it out. And say, Jason—" He pulled his horse in and spoke seriously: "Keep away from town till little Aaron gets over his spree. You don't know it, but that boy is a fine feller when he's sober. Don't you shoot first now. So long."

The next day Jason ran upon Babe Honeycutt shambling up the creek. Babe was fearless and cordial, and Jason had easily guessed why.

"Babe, my mammy told you something."

The giant hesitated, started to lie, but nodded assent.

"You haven't told anybody else?"

"Nary a livin' soul."

"Well, don't."

Babe shuffled on, stopped, called Jason, and came back close enough to whisper:

"I had all I could do yestiddy to keep little Aaron from comin' up hyeh to the mines to look for ye."

Then he shuffled away. Jason began to get angry now. He had no intention of shooting first or shooting at all except to save his own life, but he went straightway over the spur to get his pistol, Mavis saw him buckling it on, he explained why, and the girl sadly nodded assent.

Jason flung himself into his work now with prodigious energy. He never went to the county-seat, was never seen on the river road on the Honeycutt side of the ancient dead-line, and the tale-bearers on each side proceeded to get busy again. The Hawns heard that Jason had fled from little Aaron the morning Jason had gone back for his Commencement in the Blue-grass. The Honeycutts heard that Aaron had been afraid to meet Jason when he returned to the county-seat. Old Jason and old Aaron were each cautioning his grandson to put an end to the folly, and each was warning his business representative in town with commercial annihilation if he should be discovered trying to bring on the feud again. On the first county-court day Jason had to go to court, and the meeting came. The town was full with members of both factions, armed and ready for trouble. Jason had ridden ahead of his grandfather that morning and little Aaron had ridden ahead of his. Jason reached town first, and there was a stir in the Honeycutt hotel and store. Half an hour later there was a stir among the Hawns, for little Aaron rode by. A few minutes later Aaron came toward the Hawn store, in the middle of the street, swaggering. Jason happened at that moment to be crossing the same street, and a Hawn shouted warning.

Jason looked up and saw Aaron coming. He stopped, turned, and waited until Aaron reached for his gun. Then his own flashed, and the two reports sounded as one. One black lock was clipped from Jason's right temple and a little patch flew from the left shoulder of Aaron's coat. To Jason's surprise Aaron lowered his weapon and began working at it savagely with both hands, and while Jason waited, Aaron looked up.

"Shoot ahead," he said sullenly; "it's a new gun and it won't work."

But no shot came and Aaron looked up again, mystified and glaring, but Jason was smiling and walking toward him.

"Aaron, there are two or three trifling fellows on our side who hate you and are afraid of you. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, the same thing is true about me of two or three men on your side, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"They've been carrying tales from one side to the other. I've never said anything against you."

Aaron, genuinely disbelieving, stared questioningly for a moment— and believed.

"I've never said anything against you, either."

"I believe you. Well, do you see any reason why we should be shooting each other down to oblige a few cowards?"

"No, by God, I don't."

"Well, I don't want to die and I don't believe you do. There are a lot of things I want to do and a lot that you want to do. We want to help our own people and our own mountains all we can, and the best thing we can do for them and for ourselves is to stop this feud."

"It's the God's truth," said Aaron solemnly, but looking still a little incredulous.

"You and I can do it."

"You bet we can!"

"Let's do it. Shake hands."

And thus, while the amazed factions looked on the two modern young mountaineers, eye to eye and hand gripping hand, pledged death to the long warfare between their clans and a deathless friendship between themselves. And a little later a group of lounging Hawns and Honeycutts in the porches of the two ancient hostile hotels saw the two riding out of town side by side, unarmed, and on their way to bring old Aaron and old Jason together and make peace between them.

The coincidence was curious, but old Aaron, who had started for town, met old Jason coming out of a ravine only a mile from town, for old Jason, with a sudden twitch of memory, had turned to go up a hollow where lived a Hawn he wanted to see and was coming back to the main road again. Both were dim-sighted, both wore spectacles, both of their old nags were going at a walk, making no noise in the deep sand, and only when both horses stopped did either ancient peer forward and see the other.

"Well, by God," quavered both in the same voice. And each then forgot his mission of peace, and began to climb, grunting, from his horse, each hitching it to the fence.

"This is the fust time in five year, Jason Hawn, you an' me come together, an' you know whut I swore I'd do," cackled old Aaron.

Old Jason's voice was still deep.

"Well, you've got yo' chance now, you old bag o' bones! Them two boys o' ours air all right but thar hain't no manhood left in this hyeh war o' ours. Hit's just a question of which hired feller gits the man who hired the other feller. We'll fight the ole way. You hain't got a knife—now?"

"Damn yo' hide!" cried old Aaron. "Do you reckon I need hit agin you?" He reached in his pocket and tossed a curved-bladed weapon into the bushes.

"Well," mumbled old Jason, "I can whoop you, fist an' skull, right now, just as I allers have done."

Both were stumbling back into the road now.

"You air just as big a liar as ever, Jase, an' I'm goin' to prove it."

And then the two tottering old giants squared off, their big, knotted, heavily veined fists revolving around each other in the old-fashioned country way. Old Jason first struck the air, was wheeled around by the force of his own blow, and got old Aaron's fist in the middle of the back. Again the Hawn struck blindly as he turned, and from old Aaron's grunt he knew he had got him in the stomach. Then he felt a fist in his own stomach, and old Aaron cackled triumphantly when he heard the same tell-tale grunt.

"Oh, yes, dad—blast ye! Come on agin, son."

They clinched, and as they broke away a blind sweep from old Jason knocked Aaron's brassrimmed spectacles from his nose.

They fell far apart, and when old Jason advanced again, peering forward, he saw his enemy silently pawing the air with his back toward him, and he kicked him.

"Here I am, you ole idgit!"

"Stop!" shouted old Aaron, "I've lost my specs."

"Whar?"

"I don't know," and as he dropped to his knees old Jason bent too to help him find his missing eyes. Then they went at it again—and the same cry came presently from old Jason.

"Stop, I've lost mine!"

And both being out of breath sat heavily down in the sand, old Jason feeling blindly with his hands and old Aaron peering about him as far as he could see. And thus young Jason and young Aaron found them, and were utterly mystified until the old men rose creakily and got ready for battle again—when both spurred forward with a shout of joy, and threw themselves from their horses.

"Go for him, grandpap!" shouted each, and the two old men turned.

"Uncle Aaron," shouted Jason, "I bet you can lick him!"

"He can't do it, Uncle Jason!" shouted Aaron.

Each old man peered at his own grandson, dumbfounded. Neither was armed, both were helpless with laughter, and each was urging on the oldest enemy of his clan against his own grandfather. The face of each old man angered, and then both began to grin sheepishly; for both were too keen-witted not to know immediately that what both really wished for had come to pass.

"Aaron," said old Jason, "the boys have ketched us. I reckon we better call this thing a draw."

"All right," piped old Aaron, "we're a couple o' ole fools anyhow."

So they shook hands. Each grandson helped the other's grandfather laughingly on his horse. and the four rode back toward town. And thus old Jason and old Aaron, side by side in front, and young Jason and young Aaron, side by side behind, appeared to the astonished eyes of Hawns and Honeycutts on the main street of the county-seat. Before the Honeycutt store they stopped, and old Aaron called his henchman into the middle of the street and spoke vigorous words that all the Honeycutts could hear. Then they rode to the Hawn store, and old Jason called his henchman out and spoke like words that all the Hawns could hear. And each old man ended his discourse with a profane dictum that sounded like the vicious snap of a black-snake whip.

"By God, hit's GOT to stop."'

Then turned the four again and rode homeward, and for the first time in their lives old Aaron and young Aaron darkened the door of old Jason's house, and in there the jug went round the four of them, and between the best of the old order and the best of the new, final peace was cemented at last.

Jason reached the mines a little before dusk, and the old circuit rider lifted his eyes heavenward that his long prayer had been answered at last and the old woman rocked silently back and forth- -her old eyes dimmed with tears.

Then Jason hurried over the hill and took to his mother a peace she had not known even in her childhood, and a joy that she never dreamed would be hers while she lived—that her boy was safe from blood-oaths, a life of watchful terror, and constant fear of violent death. In Mavis's eyes was deep content when the moon rose on the three that night. Jason stayed a while after his mother was gone within, and, as they sat silently together, he suddenly took one of her hands in both his own and kissed it, and then he was gone. She watched him, and when his form was lost in the shadows of the trees she lifted that hand to her own lips.



XLVI

Winter came and passed swiftly. Throughout it Jason was on the night shift, and day for him was turned into night. Throughout it Mavis taught her school, and she reached home just about the time Jason was going to work, for school hours are long in the hills. Meanwhile, the railroad crept through the county-seat up the river, and the branch line up the Hawn creek to the mines was ready for it. And just before the junction was made, there was an event up that creek in which Mavis shared proudly, for the work in great part was Jason's own. Throughout the winter, coke-ovens had sprung up like great beehives along each side of the creek, and the battery of them was ready for firing. Into each, shavings and kindlings were first thrust and then big sticks of wood. Jason tied packing to the end of a pole, saturated it with kerosene, lighted it, and handed it to Mavis. Along the batteries men with similar poles waited for her. The end of the pole was a woolly ball of oily flames, writhing like little snakes when she thrust it into the first oven, and they leaped greedily at the waiting feast and started a tiny gluttonous roar within. With a yell a grinning darky flourished another mass of little flames at the next oven, and down the line the balls of fire flashed in the dusk and disappeared, and Mavis and Jason and his mother stood back and. waited. Along came eager men throwing wood and coal into the hungry maws above them. Little black clouds began to belch from them and from the earth packed around, and over them arose white clouds of steam. The swirling smoke swooped down the sides of the batteries and drove the watching three farther back. Flames burst angrily from the oven doors and leaped like yellow lightning up through the belching smoke. Behind them was the odor of the woods, fresh and damp and cool, and the sound of the little creek in its noisy way over rocks and stray fallen timbers. Down from the mines came mules with their drivers, their harness rattling as they trotted past, and from the houses poured women and children to see the first flaming signs of a great industry. And good cheer was in the air like wine, for times were good, and work and promise of work a-plenty. Exultant Jason felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to find the big superintendent smiling at him.

"You go on the day shift after this," he said. "Go to bed now."

The boy's eyes glistened, for he had been working for forty-eight hours, and with Mavis and his mother he walked up the hill. At the cottage he went inside and came out with a paper in his hand which he handed to Mavis without a word. Then he went back and with his clothes on fell across his bed.

Mavis walked down the spur with her step-mother home. She knew what the paper contained for two days before was the date fixed for the wedding-day of Marjorie and Gray Pendleton, and Gray had written Jason and Marjorie had written her, begging them both to come. By the light of a lamp she read the account, fulsome and feminine, aloud: the line of carriages and motor-cars sweeping from the pike gate between two rows of softly glowing, gently swinging Japanese lanterns, up to the noble old Southern home gleaming like a fairy palace on the top of a little hill; the gay gathering of the gentlefolk of the State; the aisle made through them by two silken white ribbons and leading to the rose-canopied altar; the coming down that aisle of the radiant bride with her flowers, and her bridesmaids with theirs; the eager waiting of the young bridegroom, the bending of two proud, sunny heads close together, and the God-sealed union of their hearts and lives. And then the silent coming of a great gleaming motor-car, the showers of rice, the showering chorus of gay good wishes and good-bys, and then they shot away in the night for some mysterious bourne of the honeymoon. And behind them the dance went on till dawn. The paper dropped in Mavis's lap, and Martha Hawn sighed and rose to get ready for bed.

"My, but some folks is lucky!"

On the porch Mavis waited up awhile, with no envy in her heart. The moon was soaring over the crest of the Cumberland, and somewhere, doubtless, Marjorie and Gray, too, had their eyes lifted toward it. She looked toward the little gap in the western hills where Gray's star had gone down.

"I'm so glad they're happy," she whispered.

The moon darkened just then, and beyond and over the dark spur flashed a new light in the sky, that ran up the mounting clouds like climbing roses of flame. The girl smiled happily. Under it tired Jason was asleep, but the light up there was the work of his hands below, and it hung in the heavens like a pillar of fire.



XLVII

Sitting on the porch next morning, Mavis and Martha Hawn saw Jason come striding down the spur.

"I'm taking a holiday to-day," he said, and there was a light in his eyes and a quizzical smile on his face that puzzled Mavis, but the mother was quick to understand. It was Saturday, a holiday, too, for Mavis, and a long one, for her school had just closed that her children might work in the fields. Without a word, but still smiling to himself, Jason went out on the back porch, got a hoe, and disappeared behind the garden fence. He came back presently with a tin can in his hands and held it out to Mavis.

"Let's go fishing," he said.

While Mavis hesitated the mother, with an inward chuckle, went within and emerged with the bow and arrow and an old fishing-pole.

"Mebbe you'll need 'em," she said dryly.

Mavis turned scarlet and Jason, pretending bewilderment, laughed happily.

"That's just what we do need," he said, with no further surprise, no question as to how those old relics of their childhood happened to be there. His mother's diplomacy was crude, but he was grateful for it, and he smiled at her understandingly.

So, like two children again, they set off, as long ago, over the spur, down the branch, across the road below the mines, and down into the deep bowl, filled to the brim with bush and tree, and to where the same deep pool lay in deep shadows asleep—Jason striding ahead and Mavis his obedient shadow once more—only this time Jason would look back every now and then and smile. Nor did he drop her pole on the ground and turn ungallantly to his bow and arrow, but unwound the line, baited her hook, cast it, and handed her the pole. As of yore, he strung his bow, which was a ridiculous plaything in his hands now, and he peered as of yore into every sunlit depth, but he turned every little while to look at the quiet figure on the bank, not squatted with childish abandon, but seated as a maiden should be, with her skirts drawn decorously around her pretty ankles. And all the while she felt him looking, and her face turned into lovely rose, though her shining eyes never left the pool that mirrored her below. Only her squeal was the same when, as of yore, she flopped a glistening chub on the bank, and another and another. Nor did he tell her she was "skeerin' the big uns" and set her to work like a little slave, but unhooked each fish and put on another worm. And only was Jason little Jason once more when at last he saw the waving outlines of an unwary bass in the depths below. Again Mavis saw him crouch, saw again the arrow drawn to his actually paling cheek, heard again the rushing hiss through the air and the burning hiss into the water, and saw a bass leap from the convulsed surface. Only this time there was no headless arrow left afloat, for, with a boyish yell, Jason dragged his squirming captive in. This time Jason gathered the twigs and built the fire and helped to clean the fish. And when all was ready, who should step forth with a loud laugh of triumph from the bushes but the same giant—Babe Honeycutt!

"I seed you two comin' down hyeh," he shouted. "Hit reminded me o' ole times. I been settin' thar in the bushes an' the smell o' them fish might' nigh drove me crazy. An' this time, by the jumpin' Jehosiphat, I'm a-goin' to have my share."

Babe did take his share, and over his pipe grew reminiscent.

"I'm mighty glad you didn't git me that day, Jason," he said, with another laugh, "an' I reckon you air too now that—"

He stopped in confusion, for Jason had darted him a warning glance. So confused was he, indeed, that he began to feel suddenly very much in the way, and he rose quickly, and with a knowing look from one to the other melted with a loud laugh into the bushes again.

"Now, wasn't that curious?" said Jason, and Mavis nodded silently.

All the time they had been drifting along the backward current of memories, and perhaps it was that current that bore them unconsciously along when they rose, for unconsciously Jason went on toward the river, until once more they stood on the little knoll whence they had first seen Gray and Marjorie ride through the arched opening of the trees. Hitherto, speech had been as sparse between them as it had been that long-ago day, but here they looked suddenly into each other's eyes, and each knew the other's thought.

"Are you sorry, Mavis?"

She flushed a little.

"Not now"; and then shyly, "are you?"

"Not now," repeated Jason.

Back they went again, lapsing once more into silence, until they came again to the point where they had started to part that day, and Mavis's fear had led him to take her down the dark ravine to her home. The spirals of smoke were even rising on either side of the spur from Jason's cottage and his mother's home, and both high above were melting into each other and into the drowsy haze that, veiled the face of the mountain. Jason turned quickly, and the subdued fire in his eyes made the girl's face burn and her eyes droop.

"Mavis," he said huskily, "do you remember what I said that day right here?"

And then suddenly the woman became the brave.

"Yes, Jasie," she said, meeting his eyes unflinchingly now and with a throb of desire to end his doubt and suffering quickly:

"And I remember what we both DID—once."

She looked down toward the old circuit rider's house at the forks of the road, and Jason's hand and lip trembled and his face was transfigured with unbelievable happiness.

"Why, Mavis—I thought you—Gray—Mavis, will you, will you?"

"Poor Jasie," she said, and almost as a mother to a child who had long suffered she gently put both arms around his neck, and, as his arms crushed her to him, lifted her mouth to meet his.

Two hours it took Jason to go to town and back, galloping all the way. And then at sunset they walked together through the old circuit rider's gate and to the porch, and stood before the old man hand in hand.

"Me an' Mavis hyeh want to git married," said Jason, with a jesting smile, and the old man's memory was as quick as his humor.

"Have ye got a license?" he asked, with a serious pursing of his lips. "You got to have a license, an' hit costs two dollars an' you got to be a man."

Jason smilingly pulled a paper from his pockets, and Mavis interrupted:

"He's MY man."

"Well, he will be in a minute—come in hyeh."

The old circuit rider's wife met them at the door and hugged them both, and when they came out on the porch again, there was Jason's mother hurrying down the spur and calling to them with a half- tearful laugh of triumph.

"I knowed it—oh, I knowed it."

The news spread swiftly. Within half an hour the big superintendent was tumbling his things from the cottage into the road, for his own family was coming, he explained to Jason's mother, and he needed a larger house anyway. And so Babe Honeycutt swung twice down the spur on the other side and up again with Mavis's worldly goods on his great shoulders, while inside the cottage Martha Hawn and the old circuit rider's wife were as joyously busy as bees. On his last trip Mavis and Jason followed, and on top of the spur Babe stopped, cocked his ear, and listened. Coming on a slow breeze up the ravine from the river far below was the long mellow blast of a horn.

"'I God," laughed Babe triumphantly, "ole Jason's already heerd it."

And, indeed, within half an hour word came that the old man must have the infair at his house that night, and already to all who could hear he had blown welcome on the wind.

So, at dusk, when Jason, on the circuit rider's old nag, rode through camp with Mavis on a pillion behind in laughing acceptance of the old pioneer custom, women and children waved at them from doorways and the miners swung their hats and cheered them as they passed. There was an old-fashioned gathering at the old Hawn home that night. Old Aaron and young Aaron and many Honeycutts were there; the house was thronged, fiddles played old tunes for nimble feet, and Hawns and Honeycutts ate and drank and made merry until the morning sun fanned its flames above the sombre hills.

But before midnight Jason and Mavis fared forth pillion-fashion again. Only, Jason too rode sidewise every now and then that he might clasp her with one arm and kiss her again and again under the smiling old moon. Through the lights and noise of the mighty industry that he would direct, they passed and climbed on.

Soon only lights showed that their grimy little working world was below. Soon they stood on the porch of their own little home. To them there the mighty on-sweeping hills sent back their own peace, God-guarded and never to be menaced by the hand of man. And there, clasped in each other's arms, their spirits rushed together, and with the spiral of smoke from their own hearthstones, went upward.



XLVIII

Gently that following midsummer the old president's crutch thumped the sidewalk leading to the college. Between the pillars of the gateway he paused, lifted his undimmed keen blue eyes, and more gently still the crutch thumped on the gravelled road as he passed slowly on under the trees. When he faced the first deserted building, he stopped quite still. The campus was deserted and the buildings were as silent as tombs. That loneliness he had known many, many years; but there was a poignant sorrow in it now that was never there before, for only that morning he had turned over the reins of power into a pair of younger hands. The young men and young women would come again, but now they would be his no longer. There would be the same eager faces, dancing eyes, swift coming and going, but not for him. The same cries of greeting, the tramp of many feet, shouts from the playgrounds-but not for his ears. The same struggle for supremacy in the class-room—but not for his favor and his rewarding hand. That hand had all but upraised each building, brick by brick and stone by stone. He had started alone, he had fought alone, and in spite of his Scotch shrewdness, business sagacity, indomitable pluck and patience, and a nationwide fame for scholarship, the fight had been hard and long. He had won, but the work was yet unfinished, and it was his no longer. For a little while he stood there, and John Burnham, coming from his class-room with a little bag of books, saw the still figure on crutches and paused noiselessly on the steps. He saw the old scholar's sensitive mouth quiver and his thin face wrenched with pain, and he guessed the tragedy of farewell that was taking place. He saw the old president turn suddenly, limp toward the willow-trees, and Burnham knew that he could not bear at that moment to pass between those empty beloved halls. And Burnham watched him move under the willows along the edge of the quiet pond, watched him slowly climbing a little hill on the other side of the campus, and then saw him wearily pass through his own gate-home. He wished that the old scholar could know how much better he had builded than he knew; could know what an exchange and clearing-house that group of homely buildings was for the human wealth of the State. And he wondered if in the old thoroughbred's heart was the comfort that his spirit would live on and on to help mould the lives of generations unborn, who might perhaps never hear his name.

There was a youthful glad light in John Burnham's face when he turned his back on the deserted college, for he, too, was on his way at last to the hills—and St. Hilda. As he swept through the Blue-grass he almost smiled upon the passing fields. The betterment of the tobacco troubles was sure to come, and only that summer the farmer was beginning to realize that in the end the seed of his blue-grass would bring him a better return than the leaf of his troublesome weed-king. There were groaning harvests that summer and herds of sheep and hogs and fat cattle. There was plenty of wheat and rye and oats and barley and corn yet coming out of the earth, and, as woodland after woodland reeled past his window, he realized that the trees were not yet all gone. Perhaps after all his beloved Kentucky would come back to her own, and there was peace in his grateful heart.

Two nights later, sitting on the porch of her little log cabin, he told St. Hilda about Gray and Marjorie, as she told him about Mavis and Jason Hawn. Gray and Jason had gone back, each to his own, having learned at last what Mavis and Marjorie, without learning, already knew—that duty is to others rather than self, to life rather than love. But John Burnham now knew that in the dreams of each girl another image would live always; just as always Jason would see another's eyes misty with tears for him and feel the comforting clutch of a little hand, while in Gray's heart a wood-thrush would sing forever.

And, looking far ahead, both could see strong young men hurrying up from the laggard Blue-grass into the lagging hills and strong young men hurrying down from them, and could hear the heart of the hills beating as one with the heart of the Bluegrass, and both beating as one with the heart of the world.

THE END

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse