Chapter XI. Ollie Stewart's Good-by.
 

Beside the splendidly developed young woman, Ollie Stewart appeared but a weakling. His shoulders were too narrow and he stooped; his limbs were thin; his hair black and straight; and his eyes dull.

As Young Matt stepped forward, Ollie dismounted quickly, but the big fellow was first at the brown pony's side. Sammy's eyes shone with admiration, and, as the strong man felt their light, he was not at all sorry that he had won the mule colt for Buck.

"No," she said, declining his offered assistance; she did not wish to get down; they were going to the postoffice and would call for the meal on their way home.

Young Matt lifted the sack of corn from Brownie's back and carried it into the shed. When he returned to the group, Ollie was saying in his thin voice, "In th' circus I seen in the city there was a feller that lifted a man, big as Jed here, clean above his head with one hand."

Buck turned to his big friend. His look was met by a grim smile that just touched the corners of the lad's mouth, and there was a gleam in the blue eyes that betrayed the spirit within. The lean mountaineer again turned to the company, while the boy glanced at Sammy. The girl was watching him and had caught the silent exchange between the two friends.

"Shucks!" said Buck; "Matt could do that easy." "Try it, Matt." "Try Jed here." "Try hit once," called the chorus.

This time the big fellow needed no urging. With Sammy looking on, he could not resist the opportunity which Ollie himself had presented. Without a word, but with a quick tightening of the lips, he stepped forward and caught Jed by the belt with his right hand; and then, before anyone could guess his purpose, he reached out with his other hand, and grasped Ollie himself in the same manner. There was a short step forward, a quick upward swing, and the giant held a man in each hand at full arm's length above his head. Amid the shouts of the crowd, still holding the men, he walked deliberately to the blacksmith shop and back; then lowering them easily to their feet, turned to his engine.

Ollie and Sammy rode away together, up the green arched road, and the little company in the mill shed stood watching them. As the finely formed young woman and her inferior escort passed from sight, a tall mountaineer, from the other side of Compton Ridge, remarked, "I done heard Preachin' Bill say t'other day, that 'mighty nigh all this here gee-hawin', balkin', and kickin' 'mongst th' married folks comes 'cause th' teams ain't matched up right.' Bill he 'lowed God 'lmighty 'd fixed hit somehow so th' birds an' varmints don't make no mistake, but left hit plumb easy for men an' women t' make durned fools o' theirselves."

Everybody grinned in appreciation, and another spoke up; "According t' that, I'll bet four bits if them two yonder ever do get into double harness, there'll be pieces o' th' outfit strung from th' parson's clean t' th' buryin' ground."

When the laughter had subsided, Buck turned to see Young Matt standing just outside the shed, ostensibly doing something with the belt that led to the burr, but in reality looking up the creek.

"Law!" ejaculated Buck, under his breath; "what a team they'd make!"

"Who?" said Lem, who was standing near by.

"Them mule colts," returned Buck with a grin.

"They sure will, Buck. There ain't two better in the country; they're a dead match. I'll come over an' hep you break 'em when they're big 'nough." And then he wondered why Buck swore with such evident delight.

One by one the natives received their meal, and, singly, or in groups of two or three, were swallowed up by the great forest. Already the little valley was in the shadow of the mountain, though the sun still shone brightly on the tree tops higher up, when Ollie and Sammy returned from the Forks. Mr. Matthews had climbed the hill when the last grist was ground, leaving his son to cool down the engine and put things right about the mill.

"Come on, Matt," said Ollie, as the big fellow brought out the meal; "It's time you was a goin' home."

The young giant hung back, saying, "You folks better go on ahead. I'll get home alright."

"Didn't think nothin' would get you," laughed Ollie. "Come on, you might as well go 'long with us."

The other muttered something about being in the way, and started back into the shed.

"Hurry up," called Sammy, "we're waitin'."

After this there was nothing else for the young man to do but join them. And the three were soon making their way up the steep mountain road together.

For a time they talked of commonplace things, then Young Matt opened the subject that was on all their hearts. "I reckon, Ollie, this is the last time that you'll ever be a climbin' this old road." As he spoke he was really thinking of the time to come when Sammy would climb the road for the last time.

"Yes," returned Stewart; "I go to-morrow 'fore sun up."

The other continued; "It'll sure be fine for you to live in the city and get your schoolin' and all that. Us folks here in the woods don't know nothin'. We ain't got no chance to learn. You'll be forgettin' us all mighty quick, I reckon, once you get to livin' with your rich kin."

"'Deed, I won't!" returned Ollie warmly. "Sammy an' me was a talkin' 'bout that this evenin'. We aim t' always come back t' Mutton Holler onct a year, an' be just like other folks; don't we, Sammy?"

The brown pony, stepping on a loose stone, stumbled toward the man walking by his side. And the big fellow put out his hand quickly to the little horse's neck. For an instant, the girl's hand rested on the giant's shoulder, and her face was close to his. Then Brownie recovered his footing, and Young Matt drew farther away.

Ollie continued; "We aim t' have you come t' th' city after a while. I'm goin' t' get Uncle Dan t' give you a job in th' shops, an' you can get out o' these hills an' be somebody like we'uns."

The tone was unmistakably patronizing. The big mountaineer lifted his head proudly, and turned toward the speaker; but before he could reply, Sammy broke in eagerly, "Law! but that would sure be fine, wouldn't it, Matt? I'd know you'd do somethin' big if you only had the chance. I just know you would. You're so--so kind o' big every way," she laughed. "It's a plumb shame for you to be buried alive in these hills."

There was nothing said after this, until, coming to the top of the ridge, they stopped. From here Ollie and Sammy would take the Old Trail to the girl's home. Then, with his eyes on the vast sweep of forest-clad hills and valleys, over which the blue haze was fast changing to purple in the level rays of the sun, Young Matt spoke.

"I don't guess you'd better figure on that. Some folks are made to live in the city, and some ain't. I reckon I was built to live in these hills. I don't somehow feel like I could get along without them; and besides, I'd always be knockin' against somethin' there." He laughed grimly, and stretched out his huge arms. "I've got to have room. Then there's the folks yonder." He turned his face toward the log house, just showing through the trees. "You know how it is, me bein' the only one left, and Dad gettin' old. No, I don't guess you need to count on me bein' more than I am."

Then suddenly he wheeled about and looked from one face to the other; and there was a faint hint of defiance in his voice, as he finished; "I got an idea, too, that the backwoods needs men same as the cities. I don't see how there ever could be a city even, if it wasn't for the men what cleared the brush. Somebody's got to lick Wash Gibbs some day, or there just naturally won't be no decent livin' in the neighborhood ever."

He held up his big hand to the man on the horse; "Good-by, and good luck to you, Ollie." The horses turned down the Old Trail and with their riders, passed from sight.

That night Sammy Lane said farewell to her lover, and, with many promises for the future, Ollie rode away to his cabin home, to leave the next morning for that world that lies so far--so far away from the world of Young Matt and his friends, the world that is so easy to get into after all, and so impossible to get out of ever.