Chapter XXII. A Letter from Ollie Stewart.
 

The Postoffice at the Forks occupied a commanding position in the northeast corner of Uncle Ike's cabin, covering an area not less than four feet square.

The fittings were in excellent taste, and the equipment fully adequate to the needs of the service: an old table, on legs somewhat rickety; upon the table, a rude box, set on end and divided roughly into eight pigeon holes, duly numbered; in the table, a drawer, filled a little with stamps and stationery, filled mostly with scraps of leaf tobacco, and an odd company of veteran cob pipes, now on the retired list, or home on furlough; before the table, a little old chair, wrought in some fearful and wonderful fashion from hickory sticks from which the bark had not been removed.

With every change of the weather, this chair, through some unknown but powerful influence, changed its shape, thus becoming in its own way a sort of government weather bureau. And if in all this "land of the free and home of the brave" there be a single throne, it must be this same curiously changeable chair. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its strange powers, that weird piece of furniture managed to make itself so felt that it was religiously avoided by every native who called at the Forks. Not the wildest "Hill-Billy" of them all dared to occupy for a moment this seat of Uncle Sam's representative. Here Uncle Ike reigned supreme over his four feet square of government property. And you may be very sure that the mighty mysterious thing known as the "gov'ment" lost none of its might, and nothing of its mystery, at the hands of its worthy official.

Uncle Ike left the group in front of the cabin, and, hurriedly entering the office, seated himself upon his throne. A tall, thin, slow moving mule, brought to before a certain tree with the grace and dignity of an ocean liner coming into her slip. Zeke Wheeler dismounted, and, with the saddle mail pouch over his arm, stalked solemnly across the yard and into the house, his spurs clinking on the gravel and rattling over the floor. Following the mail carrier, the group of mountaineers entered, and, with Uncle Ike's entire family, took their places at a respectful distance from the holy place of mystery and might, in the north east corner of the room.

The postmaster, with a key attached by a small chain to one corner of the table, unlocked the flat pouch and drew forth the contents--five papers, three letters and one postal card.

The empty pouch was kicked contemptuously beneath the table. The papers were tossed to one side. All eyes were fixed on the little bundle of first class matter. In a breathless silence the official cut the string. The silence was broken. "Ba thundas! Mary Liz Jolly'll sure be glad t' git that there letter. Her man's been gone nigh onto three months now, an' ain't wrote but once. That was when he was in Mayville. I see he's down in th' nation now at Auburn, sendin' Mary Liz some money, I reckon. Ba thundas, it's 'bout time! What!"

"James Creelman, E-S-Q., Wal, dad burn me. Jim done wrote t' that there house in Chicago more'n three weeks ago, 'bout a watch they're a sellin' fer fo' dollars. Ba thundas! They'd sure answer me quicker'n that, er they'd hear turkey. What! I done tole Jim it was only a blamed ol' fo' dollar house anyhow."

At this many nods and glances were exchanged by the group in silent admiration of the "gov'ment," and one mountaineer, bold even to recklessness, remarked, "Jim must have a heap o' money t' be a buyin' four dollar watches. Must er sold that gray mule o' hisn; hit'd fetch 'bout that much, I reckon."

"Much you know 'bout it, Buck Boswell. Let me tell you, Jim he works, he does. He's the workingest man in this here county, ba thundas! What! Jim he don't sit 'round like you fellers down on th' creek an' wait fer pawpaws to git ripe, so he can git a square meal, ba thundas!" The bold mountaineer wilted.

Uncle Ike proceeded with the business of his office. "Here's Sallie Rhodes done writ her maw a card from th' Corners. Sallie's been a visitin' her paw's folks. Says she'll be home on th' hack next mail, an' wants her maw t' meet her here. You can take th' hack next time, Zeke. An' ba thundas! Here's 'nother letter from that dummed Ollie Stewart. Sammy ain't been over yet after th' last one he wrote. Ba thundas! If it weren't for them blamed gov'- ment inspectors, I'd sure put a spoke in his wheel. What! I'd everlastin'ly seva' th' connections between that gentleman an' these here Ozarks. Dad burn me, if I wouldn't. He'd better take one o' them new fangled women in th' city, where he's gone to, an' not come back here for one o' our girls. I don't believe Sammy'd care much, nohow, ba thundas! What!" The official tossed the letter into a pigeon hole beside its neglected mate, with a gesture that fully expressed the opinion of the entire community, regarding Mr. Stewart and his intentions toward Miss Lane.

Sammy got the letters the next day, and read them over and over, as she rode slowly through the sweet smelling woods. The last one told her that Ollie was coming home on a visit. "Thursday, that's the day after to-morrow," she said aloud. Then she read the letter again.

It was a very different letter from those Ollie had written when first he left the woods. Most of all it was different in that indefinable something by which a man reveals his place in life in the letters he writes, no less than in the words he speaks, or the clothing he wears. As Sammy rode slowly through the pinery and down the narrow Fall Creek valley, she was thinking of these things, thinking of these things seriously.

The girl had been in a way conscious of the gradual change in Ollie's life, as it had been revealed in his letters, but she had failed to connect the change with her lover. The world into which young Stewart had gone, and by which he was being formed, was so foreign to the only world known to Sammy, that, while she realized in a dim way that he was undergoing a transformation, she still saw him in her mind as the backwoods boy. With the announcement of his return, and the thought that she would soon meet him face to face, it burst upon her suddenly that her lover was a stranger. The man who wrote this letter was not the man whom she had promised to marry. Who was he?

Passing the mill and the blacksmith shop, the brown pony with his absorbed rider began to climb the steep road to the Matthews place. Half way up the hill, the little horse, stepping on a loose stone, stumbled, catching himself quickly.

As a flash of lightning on a black night reveals well known landmarks and familiar objects, this incident brought back to Sammy the evening when, with Ollie and Young Matt, she had climbed the same way; when her horse had stumbled and her face had come close to the face of the big fellow whose hand was on the pony's neck. The whole scene came before her with a vividness that was startling; every word, every look, every gesture of the two young men, her own thoughts and words, the objects along the road, the very motion of her horse; she seemed to be actually living again those moments of the past. But more than this, she seemed not only to live again the incidents of that evening, but in some strange way to possess the faculty of analyzing and passing judgment upon her own thoughts and words.

Great changes had come to Sammy, too, since that night when her lover had said good-by. And now, in her deeper life, the young woman felt a curious sense of shame, as she saw how trivial were the things that had influenced her to become Ollie's promised wife. She blushed, as she recalled the motives that had sent her to the shepherd with the request that he teach her to be a fine lady.

Coming out on top of the ridge, Brownie stopped of his own accord, and the girl saw again the figure of a young giant, standing in the level rays of the setting sun, with his great arms outstretched, saying, "I reckon I was built to live in these hills. I don't guess you'd better count on me ever bein' more'n I am." Sammy realized suddenly that the question was no longer whether Ollie would be ashamed of her. It was quite a different question, indeed.