Chapter X. A Feat of Strength and a Challenge.
 

What the club is to the city man, and the general store or postoffice to the citizens of the country village, the mill is to the native of the backwoods.

Made to saw the little rough lumber he needs in his primitive building, or to grind his corn into the rough meal, that is his staff of life, the mill does more for the settler than this; it brings together the scattered population, it is the news center, the heart of the social life, and the hub of the industrial wheel.

On grinding day, the Ozark mountaineer goes to mill on horse-back, his grist in a sack behind the saddle, or, indeed, taking place of the saddle itself. The rule is, first come, first served. So, while waiting his turn, or waiting for a neighbor who will ride in the same direction, the woodsman has time to contribute his share to the gossip of the country side, or to take part in the discussions that are of more or less vital interest. When the talk runs slow, there are games; pitching horse shoes, borrowed from the blacksmith shop--there is always a blacksmith shop near by; running or jumping contests, or wrestling or shooting matches.

Fall Creek Mill, owned and operated by Mr. Matthews and his son, was located on Fall Creek in a deep, narrow valley, about a mile from their home.

A little old threshing engine, one of the very first to take the place of the horse power, and itself in turn already pushed to the wall by improved competitors, rolled the saw or the burr. This engine, which had been rescued by Mr. Matthews from the scrap-pile of a Springfield machine shop, was accepted as evidence beyond question of the superior intelligence and genius of the Matthews family. In fact, Fall Creek Mill gave the whole Mutton Hollow neighborhood such a tone of up-to-date enterprise, that folks from the Bend, or the mouth of the James, looked upon the Mutton Hollow people with no little envy and awe, not to say even jealousy.

The settlers came to the Matthews mill from far up the creek, crossing and recrossing the little stream; from Iron Spring and from Gardner, beyond Sand Ridge, following faint, twisting bridle paths through the forest; from the other side of Dewey Bald, along the Old Trail; from the Cove and from the Postoffice at the Forks, down the wagon road, through the pinery; and from Wolf Ridge and the head of Indian Creek beyond, climbing the rough mountains. Even from the river bottoms they came, yellow and shaking with ague, to swap tobacco and yarns, and to watch with never failing interest the crazy old engine, as Young Matt patted, and coaxed, and flattered her into doing his will.

They began coming early that grinding day, two weeks after Mr. Howitt had been installed at the ranch. But the young engineer was ready, with a good head of steam in the old patched boiler, and the smoke was rising from the rusty stack, in a long, twisting line, above the motionless tree tops.

It was a great day for Young Matt; great because he knew that Sammy Lane would be coming to mill; he would see her and talk with her; perhaps if he were quick enough, he might even lift her from the brown pony.

It was a great day, too, because Ollie Stewart would be saying good-by, and before to-morrow would be on his way out of the hills. Not that it mattered whether Ollie went or not. It was settled that Sammy was going to marry young Stewart; that was what mattered. And Young Matt had given her up. And, as he had told his father in the barn that day, it was alright. But still--still it was a great day, because Ollie would be saying good-by.

It was a great day in Young Matt's life, too, because on that day he would issue his challenge to the acknowledged champion of the country-side, Wash Gibbs. But Young Matt did not know this until afterwards, for it all came about in a very unexpected way.

The company had been discussing the new arrival in the neighborhood, and speculating as to the probable length of Mr. Howitt's stay at the ranch, and while Young Matt was in the burr- house with his father, they had gone over yet again the familiar incidents of the ghost story; how "Budd Wilson seen her as close as from here t' th' shop yonder." How "Joe Gardner's mule had gone plumb hog-wild when he tried to ride past the ol' ruins near th' ranch." And "how Lem Wheeler, while out hunting that roan steer o' hisn, had heard a moanin' an' a wailin' under the bluff."

Upon Young Matthews returning to his engine, the conversation had been skilfully changed, to Ollie Stewart and his remarkable good fortune. From Ollie and his golden prospects, it was an easy way to Sammy Lane and her coming marriage.

Buck Thompson was just concluding a glowing tribute to the girl's beauty of face and form when Young Matt reached for an axe lying near the speaker. Said Buck, "Preachin' Bill 'lowed t'other day hit didn't make no difference how much money th' ol' man left Ollie he'd be a poor sort of a man anyhow; an' that there's a heap better men than him right here in th' hills that Sammy could a' had fer th' askin'."

"How 'bout that, Matt?" called a young fellow from the river.

The big man's face flushed at the general laugh which followed, and he answered hotly, as he swung his axe, "You'd better ask Wash Gibbs; I hear he says he's the best man in these woods."

"I reckin as how Wash can back his jedgment there," said Joe.

"Wash is a sure good man," remarked Buck, "but there's another not so mighty far away that'll pretty nigh hold, him level." He looked significantly to where Young Matt was making the big chips fly.

"Huh," grunted Joe. "I tell you, gentlemen, that there man, Gibbs, is powerful; yes, sir, he sure is. Tell you what I seed him do." Joe pulled a twist of tobacco from his hip pocket, and settled down upon his heels, his back against a post. "Wash an' me was a goin' to th' settlement last fall, an' jest this side th' camp house, on Wilderness Road, we struck a threshin' crew stuck in th' mud with their engine. Had a break down o' some kind. Somethin' th' matter with th' hind wheel. And jest as Wash an' me drove up, th' boss of th' outfit was a tellin' 'em t' cut a big pole for a pry t' lift th' hind ex, so's they could block it up, an' fix th' wheel.

"Wash he looked at 'em a minute an' then says, says he, 'Hold on, boys; you don't need ary pole.'

"'What do you know 'bout an engine, you darned hill billy,' says th' old man, kind o' short.

"'Don't know nothin' 'bout an engine, you prairie hopper,' says Wash, 'but I know you don't need no pole t' lift that thing.'

"'How'd you lift it then?' says t'other.

"'Why I'd jest catch holt an' lift,' says Wash.

"The gang like t' bust themselves laughin'. 'Why you blame fool,' says the boas; 'do you know what that engine'll weigh?"

"'Don't care a cuss what she'll weigh,' says Wash. 'She ain't planted there, is she?' An' with that he climbs down from th' wagon, an' dad burn me if he didn't take holt o' that hind ex an' lift one whole side o' that there engine clean off th' ground. Them fellers jest stood 'round an' looked at him t' beat th' stir. 'Well,' says Wash, still a keepin' his holt; slide a block under her an' I'll mosey along!

"That boss didn't say a word 'till he'd got a bottle from a box on th' wagon an' handed, hit t' Wash; then he says kind o' scared like, 'Where in hell are you from, Mister?'

"'Oh, I'm jest a kid from over on Roark,' says Wash, handin' th' bottle t' me. 'You ought t' see some o' th' men in my neighborhood!' Then we went on."

When the speaker had finished, there was quiet for a little; then the young man from the river drawled, "How much did you say that there engine 'd weigh, Joe?"

There was a general laugh at this, which the admirer of Gibbs took good naturedly; "Don't know what she'd weigh but she was 'bout the size o' that one there," he answered.

With one accord everyone turned to inspect the mill engine. "Pretty good lift, Joe. Let's you an' me take a pull at her, Budd," remarked Lem Wheeler.

The two men lifted and strained at the wheel. Then another joined them, and, amid the laughter and good natured raillery of the crowd, the three tried in vain to lift one of the wheels; while Mr. Matthews, seeing some unusual movement, came into the shed and stood with his son, an amused witness of their efforts.

"Sure this engine ain't bigger'n t'other, Joe?" asked one of the group.

"Don't believe she weighs a pound more," replied the mountaineer with conviction. "I tell you, gentlemen, that man Gibbs is a wonder, he sure is."

Old Matt and his son glanced quickly at each other, and the boy shook his head with a smile. This little by-play was lost on the men who were interested in the efforts of different ones, in groups of three, to move the wheel. When they had at last given it up, the young man from the river drawled, "You're right sure hit weren't after th' boas give you that bottle that Wash lifted her, are you Joe? Or wasn't hit on th' way home from th' settlement?"

When the laugh at this insinuation had died out, Buck said thoughtfully, "Tell you what, boys; I'd like t' see Young Matt try that lift."

Mr. Matthews, who was just starting back to the burr-house, paused in the doorway. All eyes were fixed upon his son. "Try her, Matt. Show us what you can do," called the men in chorus. But the young man shook his head, and found something that needed his immediate attention.

All that morning at intervals the mountaineers urged the big fellow to attempt the feat, but he always put them off with some evasive reply, or was too busy to gratify them.

But after dinner, while the men were pitching horse shoes in front of the blacksmith shop, Buck Thompson approached the young engineer alone. "Look a here, Matt," he said, "why don't you try that lift? Durned me if I don't believe you'd fetch her."

The young giant looked around; "I know I can, Buck; I lifted her yesterday while Dad fixed the blockin'; I always do it that way."

Buck looked at him in amazement. "Well, why in thunder don't you show th' boys, then?" he burst forth at last.

"'Cause if I do Wash Gibbs'll hear of it sure, and I'll have to fight him to settle which is th' best man."

"Good Lord!" ejaculated Buck, with a groan. "If you're afraid o' Wash Gibbs, it's th' first thing I ever knowed you t' be scared o'."

Young Matt looked his friend steadily in the eyes, as he replied; "I ain't afraid of Wash Gibbs; I'm afraid of myself. Mr. Howitt says, 'No man needn't be afraid of nobody but himself.' I've been a thinkin' lately, Buck, an' I see some things that I never see before. I figure it that if I fight Wash Gibbs or anybody else just to see which is th' best man, I ain't no better'n he is. I reckon I'll have to whip him some day, alright, an' I ain't a carin' much how soon it comes; but I ain't a goin' to hurt nobody for nothin' just because I can."

Buck made no reply to this. Such sentiment was a little too much for his primitive notions. He went back to the men by the blacksmith shop.

It was not long, however, until the players left their game, to gather once more about the engine. Lem Wheeler approached Young Matt with a serious air; "Look a here," he said; "we all want t' see you try that lift."

"I ain't got no time for foolin'," replied the young man; "Dad's just pushin' to get done before dark."

"Shucks!" retorted the other; "Hit won't take a minute t' try. Jest catch hold an' show us what you can do."

"What are you all so keen about my liftin' for, anyhow?" demanded the big fellow, suspiciously. "I ain't never set up as the strong man of this country."

"Well, you see it's this way; Buck done bet me his mule colt agin mine that you could lift her; an' we want you to settle th' bet!" exclaimed Lem.

Young Matthews shot a glance at the mountaineer, who grinned joyously. "Yep," said Buck, "that's how it is; I'm a backin' you. Don't want you t' hurt yourself for me, but I sure do need that colt o' Lem's; hit's a dead match for mine."

The giant looked at his friend a moment in silence, then burst into a laugh of appreciation at Buck's hint. "Seein' as how you're backin' me, Buck, I'll have t' get you that mule if I can."

He shut off steam, and, as the engine came to a stop, stooped, and, with apparent ease, lifted the rear wheel a full four inches from the ground.

Loud exclamations of admiration came from the little group of men in the shed. Lem turned with a long face, "Them colts 'll make a fine team, Buck;" he said.

"You bet; come over an' hep me break 'em," replied Buck, with another grin of delight.

"Wait 'till Wash Gibbs hears 'bout this, an' he'll sure be for breakin' Young Matt," put in another.

"Better get your fightin' clothes on, Matt; Wash'll never rest easy until you've done showed him." These and similar remarks revealed the general view of the situation.

While the men were discussing the matter, a thin, high-pitched voice from the edge of the crowd, broke in, "That there's a good lift alright, but hit ain't nothin' t' what I seed when I was t' th' circus in th' city."

Young Matt, who had started the engine again, turned quickly. Ollie Stewart was sitting on a horse near by, and at his side, on the brown pony, was Miss Sammy Lane. They had evidently ridden up just in time to witness the exhibition of the giant's strength.