Chapter XV. The Party at Ford's.
 

Young Matt would have found some excuse for staying at home the night of the party at Ford's, but the shepherd said he must go.

The boy felt that the long evening with Sammy would only hurt. He reasoned with himself that it would be better for him to see as little as possible of the girl who was to marry Ollie Stewart. Nevertheless, he was singing as he saddled the big white faced sorrel to ride once more over the trail that is nobody knows how old.

Mr. Lane was leading the brown pony from the stable as Young Matt rode up to the gate; and from the doorway of the cabin Sammy called to say that she would be ready in a minute.

"Ain't seen you for a coon's age, boy," said Jim, while they were waiting for the girl. "Why don't you never come down the Old Trail no more?"

The big fellow's face reddened, as he answered, "I ain't been nowhere, Jim. 'Pears like I just can't get away from the place no more; we're that busy."

Sammy's father looked his young neighbor squarely in the eye with that peculiar searching gaze; "Look a here, Grant. I've knowed you ever since you was born, and you ought to know me a little. 'Tain't your way to dodge, and 'tain't mine. I reckon you know you're welcome, same as always, don't you?"

Young Matt returned the other's look fairly; "I ain't never doubted it, Jim. But things is a heap different now, since it's all done and settled, with Ollie gone."

The two understood each other perfectly. Said Jim, drawing a long breath, "Well I wish you'd come over just the same, anyway. It can't do nobody no harm as I can see."

"It wouldn't do me no good," replied the young man.

"Maybe not," assented Jim. "But I'd like mighty well to have you come just the same." Then he drew closer to his young friend; "I've been aimin' to ride over and see you, Matt; but Sammy said you was a comin' this evenin', and I 'lowed this would be soon enough. I reckon you know what Wash Gibbs is tellin' he aims to do first chance he gets."

The giant drew himself up with a grim smile, "I've heard a good bit, Jim. But you don't need to mind about me; I know I ain't quite growed, but I am a growin'."

The older man surveyed the great form of the other with a critical eye, as he returned, "Durned if I don't believe you'd push him mighty close, if he'd only play fair. But--but I 'lowed you ought to know it was a comin'."

"I have knowed it for a long time," said the other cheerfully; "but I heard 'Preachin' Bill' say once, that if a feller don't fuss about what he knows for sure, the things he don't know ain't apt to bother him none. It's this here guessin' that sure gets a man down."

"'Preachin' Bill' hits it every pop, don't he?" exclaimed Jim, admiringly. "But there's somethin' else you ought to know, too, Matt. Wash has done made his threats agin the old man down there."

"You mean Dad Howitt?" said Young Matt, sharply. "What's Wash got agin Dad, Jim?"

Mr. Lane shifted uneasily, "Some fool notion of hisn. You mind old man Lewis, I reckon?"

The big man's muscles tightened. "Dad told us about his stoppin' at the ranch the other night. Wash Gibbs better keep his hands off Mr. Howitt."

"I ain't told nobody about this, Grant, and you can do as you like about tellin' your father, and the old man. But if anything happens, get word to me, quick."

Before more could be said, Sammy appeared in the doorway, and soon the two young people were riding on their way. Long after they had passed from sight in the depth of the forest, the dark mountaineer stood at the big gate, looking in the direction they had gone.

Young Matt was like a captive, tugging at his bonds. Mr. Lane's words had stirred the fire, and the girl's presence by his side added fuel to the flame. He could not speak. He dared not even look at her, but rode with his eyes fixed upon the ground, where the sunlight fell in long bars of gold. Sammy, too, was silent. She felt something that was strangely like fear, when she found herself alone with her big neighbor. Now and then she glanced timidly up at him and tried to find some word with which to break the silence. She half wished that she had not come. So they rode together through the lights and shadows down into the valley, the only creatures in all the free life of the forest who were not free.

At last the girl spoke, "It's mighty good of you to take me over to Mandy's to-night. There ain't no one else I could o' gone with." There was no reply, and Sammy, seeming not to notice, continued talking in a matter-of-fact tone that soon--for such is the way of a woman--won him from his mood, and the two chatted away like the good comrades they had always been.

Just after they had crossed Fall Creek at Slick Rock Ford, some two miles below the mill, Young Matt leaned from his saddle, and for a little way studied the ground carefully. When he sat erect again, he remarked, with the air of one who had reached a conclusion, "Wouldn't wonder but there'll be doin's at Ford's to- night, sure enough."

"There's sure to be," returned the girl; "everybody'll be there. Mandy's folks from over on Long Creek are comin', and some from the mouth of the James. Mandy wanted Daddy to play for 'em, but he says he can't play for parties no more, and they got that old fiddlin' Jake from the Flag neighborhood, I guess."

"There'll be somethin' a heap more excitin' than fiddlin' and dancin', accordin' to my guess," returned Young Matt.

"What do you mean?" asked Sammy.

Her escort pointed to the print of a mule's shoe in the soft soil of the low bottom land. "That there's Wash Gibbs's dun mule, and he's headed down the creek for Jennings's still. Wash'll meet a lot of his gang from over on the river, and like's not they'll go from there to the party. I wish your dad was goin' to do the playin' to-night."

It was full dark before they reached the Ford clearing. The faint, far away sound of a violin, seeming strange and out of place in the gloomy solitude of the great woods, first told them that other guests had already arrived. Then as they drew nearer and the tones of the instrument grew louder, they could hear the rhythmic swing and beat of heavily shod feet upon the rough board floors, with the shrill cries of the caller, and the half savage, half pathetic sing-song of the backwoods dancers, singing, "Missouri Gal."

Reaching the edge of the clearing, they involuntarily checked their horses, stopping just within the shadow of the timber. Here the sound of the squeaking fiddle, the shouting caller, the stamping feet, and the swinging dancers came with full force; and, through the open door and windows of the log house, they could see the wheeling, swaying figures of coatless men and calico gowned women, while the light, streaming out, opened long lanes in the dusk. About them in the forest's edge, standing in groups under the trees, were the shadowy forms of saddle horses and mules, tied by their bridle reins to the lower branches; and nearer to the cabin, two or three teams, tied to the rail-fence, stood hitched to big wagons in which were splint-bottom chairs for extra seats.

During the evening, the men tried in their rough, good natured way, to joke Young Matt about taking advantage of Ollie Stewart's absence, but they very soon learned that, while the big fellow was ready to enter heartily into all the fun of the occasion, he would not receive as a jest any allusion to his relation to the girl, whom he had escorted to the party. Sammy, too, when her big companion was not near, suffered from the crude wit of her friends.

"Ollie Stewart don't own me yet," she declared with a toss of the head, when someone threatened to write her absent lover.

"No," replied one of her tormentors, "but you ain't aimin' to miss your chance o' goin' t' th' city t' live with them big-bugs."

In the laugh that followed, Sammy was claimed by a tall woodsman for the next dance, and escaped to take her place on the floor.

"Well, Ollie'll sure make a good man for her," remarked another joker; "if he don't walk th' chalk, she can take him 'cross her knee an' wallop him."

"She'll surely marry him, alright," said the first, "'cause he's got th' money, but she's goin' t' have a heap o' fun makin' Young Matt play th' fool before she leaves th' woods. He ain't took his eyes off her t'night. Everybody's laughin' at him."

"I notice they take mighty good care t' laugh behind his back," flashed little black-eyed Annie Brooke from the Cove neighborhood.

Young Matt, who had been dancing with Mandy Ford, came up behind the group just in time to hear their remarks. Two or three who saw him within hearing tried to warn the speakers, but while everybody around them saw the situation, the two men caught the frantic signals of their friends too late. The music suddenly stopped. The dancers were still. By instinct every eye in the room was fixed upon the little group, as the jokers turned to face the object of their jests.

The big mountaineer took one long step toward the two who had spoken, his brow dark with rage, his huge fists clenched. But, even as his powerful muscles contracted for the expected blow, the giant came to a dead stop. Slowly his arm relaxed. His hand dropped to his side. Then, turning deliberately, he walked to the door, the silent crowd parting to give him way.

As the big man stepped from the room, a gasp of astonishment escaped from the company, and the two jokers, with frightened faces, broke into a shrill, nervous laughter. Then a buzz of talk went round; the fiddlers struck up again; the callers shouted; the dancers stamped, and bowed, and swung their partners as they sang.

And out in the night under the trees, at the edge of the gloomy forest, the strongest man in the hills was saying over and over to the big, white faced sorrel, "I don't dare do it. I don't dare. Dad Howitt wouldn't. He sure wouldn't."

Very soon two figures left the house, and hurried toward a bunch of saddle horses near by. They had untied their animals, and were about to mount, when suddenly a huge form stepped from the shadows to their horses' heads. "Put up your guns, boys," said Young Matt calmly. "I reckon you know that if I'd wanted trouble, it would o' been all over before this."

The weapons were not drawn, and the big man continued, "Dad Howitt says a feller always whips himself every time he fights when there ain't no--no principle evolved. I don't guess Dad would see ary principle in this, 'cause there might be some truth in what you boys said. I reckon I am somethin' at playin' a fool, but it would o' been a heap safer for you to let folks find it out for themselves."

"We all were jest a foolin', Matt," muttered one.

"That's alright," returned the big fellow; "But you'd better tie up again and go back into the house and dance a while longer. Folks might think you was scared if you was to leave so soon."