Chapter XVI. On the Way Home.
 

Not until the party was breaking up, and he saw Sammy in the doorway, did Young Matt go back to the house.

When they had ridden again out of the circle of light, and the laughter and shouting of the guests was no longer heard, Sammy tried in vain to arouse her silent escort, chatting gaily about the pleasures of the evening. But all the young man's reserve had returned. When she did force him to speak, his responses were so short and cold that at last the girl, too, was silent. Then, man- like, he wished she would continue talking.

By the time they reached Compton Ridge the moon was well up. For the last two miles Sammy had been watching the wavering shafts of light that slipped through tremulous leaves and swaying branches. As they rode, a thousand fantastic shapes appeared and vanished along the way, and now and then as the sound of their horses' feet echoed through the silent forest, some wild thing in the underbrush leaped away into the gloomy depth.

Coming out on top of the narrow ridge, the brown pony crowded closer to the big, white faced sorrel, and the girl, stirred by the weird loveliness of the scene, broke the silence with an exclamation, "O Matt! Ain't it fine? Look there!" She pointed to the view ahead. "Makes me feel like I could keep on a goin', and goin', and never stop."

The man, too, felt the witchery of the night. The horses were crowding more closely together now, and, leaning forward, the girl looked up into his face; "What's the matter, Matt? Why don't you talk to me? You know it ain't true what them folks said back there."

The sorrel was jerked farther away. "It's true enough, so far as it touches me," returned the man shortly. "When are you goin' to the city?"

"I don't know," she replied. "Let's don't talk about that to- night. I don't want even to think about it, not to-night. You--you don't believe what they was a sayin', Matt; you know you don't. You mustn't ever believe such as that. I--I never could get along without you and Aunt Mollie and Uncle Matt, nohow." The brown pony was again crowding closer to his mate. The girl laid a hand on her companion's arm. "Say you don't blame me for what they said, Matt. You know I wouldn't do no such a thing even if I could. There mustn't anything ever come between you and me; never--never. I--I want us always to be like we are now. You've been so good to me ever since I was a little trick, and you whipped big Lem Wheeler for teasin' me. I--I don't guess I could get along without knowin' you was around somewhere." She finished with a half sob.

It was almost too much. The man swung around in his saddle, and the horses, apparently of their own accord, stopped. Without a word, the big fellow stretched forth his arms, and the girl, as if swept by a force beyond her control, felt herself swaying toward him.

The spell was broken by the trampling of horses and the sound of loud voices. For a moment they held their places, motionless, as if rudely awakened from a dream. The sound was coming nearer. Then Young Matt spoke, "It's Wash Gibbs and his crowd from the still. Ride into the brush quick."

There was no time for flight. In the bright moonlight, they would have been easily recognized, and a wild chase would have followed. Leaving the road, they forced their horses into a thick clump of bushes, where they dismounted, to hold the animals by their heads. Scarcely had they gained this position when the first of the crowd reached the spot where they had been a moment before. Wash Gibbs was easily distinguished by his gigantic form, and with him were ten others, riding two and two, several of whom were known to Young Matt as the most lawless characters in the country. All were fired by drink and were laughing and talking, with now and then a burst of song, or a vulgar jest.

"I say, Wash," called one, "What'll you do if Young Matt's there?" The unseen listeners could not hear the leader's reply; but those about the speaker laughed and shouted with great glee. Then the two in the bushes distinctly heard the last man in the line ask his companion, "Do you reckon he'll put up a fight?" and as they passed from sight, the other answered, "Wash don't aim t' give him no show."

When the sounds had died away; Young Matt turned to the girl; "Come on; we've got to keep 'em in sight."

But Sammy held back. "Oh, Matt, don't go yet. We must not. Didn't you hear what that man said? It's you they're after. Let's wait here until they're clean gone."

"No, 'tain't; they ain't a wantin' me," the big fellow replied. And before the young woman could protest further, he lifted her to the saddle as easily as if she were a child. Then, springing to the back of his own horse, he led the way at a pace that would keep them within hearing of the company of men.

"Who is it, Matt? Who is it, if it ain't you?" asked the girl.

"Don't know for sure yet, but I'll tell you pretty soon."

They had not gone far when Young Matt stopped the horse to listen intently; and soon by the sound he could tell that the party ahead had turned off the ridge road and were following the trail that leads down the eastern side of the mountain. A moment longer the mountaineer listened, as if to make sure; then he spoke; "Them devils are goin' to the ranch after Dad Howitt. Sammy, you've got to ride hard to-night. They won't hear you now, and they're getting farther off every minute. There ain't no other way, and, I know you'll do it for the old man. Get home as quick as you can and tell Jim what's up. Tell him I'll hold 'em until he gets there." Even as he spoke, he sprang from his horse and began loosening the saddle girths.

"But, Matt," protested the girl; "how can you? You can't get by them. How're you goin' to get there in time?"

"Down the mountain; short cut;" he answered as he jerked the heavy saddle from his horse and threw it under some nearby bushes.

"But they'll kill you. You can't never face that whole crowd alone."

"I can do it better'n Dad, and him not a lookin' for them."

Slipping the bridle from the sorrel, he turned the animal loose, and, removing his coat and hat, laid them with the saddle. Then to the girl on the pony he said sharply, "Go on, Sammy. Why don't you go on? Don't you see how you're losin' time? Them devils will do for Dad Howitt like they done for old man Lewis. Your father's the only man can stop 'em now. Ride hard, girl, and tell Jim to hurry. And--and, good-by, Sammy." As he finished, he spoke to her horse and struck him such a blow that the animal sprang away.

For a moment Sammy attempted to pull up her startled pony. Then Young Matt saw her lean forward in the saddle, and urge the little horse to even greater speed. As they disappeared down the road, the giant turned and ran crashing through the brush down the steep side of the mountain. There was no path to follow. And with deep ravines to cross, rocky bluffs to descend or scale, and, in places, wild tangles of vines and brush and fallen trees, the trip before him would have been a hard one even in the full light of day. At night, it was almost impossible, and he must go like a buck with the dogs in full cry.

When Sammy came in sight of her home, she began calling to her father, and, as the almost exhausted horse dashed up to the big gate, the door of the cabin opened, and Jim came running out. Lifting his daughter from the trembling pony, he helped her into the house, where she sobbed out her message.

At the first word, "Wash Gibbs," Jim reached for a cartridge belt, and, by the time Sammy had finished, he had taken his Winchester from its brackets over the fireplace. Slipping a bridle on his horse that was feeding in the yard, he sprang upon the animal's back without waiting for a saddle. "Stay in the cabin, girl, put out the light, and don't open the door until I come," he said and he was gone.

As Sammy turned back into the house, from away down in Mutton Hollow, on the night wind, came the sound of guns.