Chapter XXV. Young Matt Remembers.
 

After parting with his friend, Young Matt continued on his way until he reached the open ground below the point where the path from the ranch joins the Old Trail. Then he stopped and looked around.

Before him was the belt of timber, and beyond, the dark mass of the mountain ridge with the low gap where his home nestled among the trees. He could see the light from the cabin window shining like a star. Behind him lay the darker forest of the Hollow, and beyond, like a great sentinel, was the round, treeless form of Dewey Bald. From where he stood, he could even see clearly against the sky the profile of the mountain's shoulder, and the ledge at Sammy's Lookout. Another moment, and the young man had left the path that led to his home, and was making straight for the distant hill. He would climb to that spot where he had stood in the afternoon, and would look down once more upon the little cabin on the mountain side. Then he would go home along the ridge.

Three quarters of an hour later, he pushed up out of a ravine that he followed to its head below the Old Trail, near the place where, with Pete and the shepherd, he had watched Sammy reading her letter. He was climbing to the Lookout, for it was the easiest way to the ledge, and, as his eye came on a level with the bench along which the path runs, he saw clearly on the big rock above the figure of a man. Instantly Young Matt stopped. The moon shone full upon the spot, and he easily recognized the figure. It was Ollie Stewart.

Young Stewart had been greatly puzzled by Sammy's attitude. It was so unexpected, and, to his mind, so unreasonable. He loved the girl as much as it was possible for one of his weak nature to love; and he had felt sure of his place in her affections. But the door that had once yielded so readily to his touch he had found fast shut. He was on the outside, and he seemed somehow to have lost the key. In this mood on his way home, he had reached the spot that was so closely associated with the girl, and, pausing to rest after the sharp climb, had fallen to brooding over his disappointment. So intent was he upon his gloomy thoughts that he had not heard Young Matt approaching, and was wholly unconscious of that big fellow's presence in the vicinity.

For a time the face at the edge of the path regarded the figure on the rock intently; then it dropped from sight. Young Matt slipped quietly down into the ravine, and a few moments later climbed again to the Old Trail at a point hidden from the Lookout. Here he stepped quickly across the narrow open space and into the bushes on the slope of the mountain above. Then with the skill of one born and reared in the woods, the mountaineer made his way toward the man on the shoulder of the hill.

What purpose lay under his strange movement Young Matt did not know. But certainly it was not in his mind to harm Ollie. He was acting upon the impulse of the moment; an impulse to get nearer and to study unobserved the person of his rival. So he stalked him with all the instinct of a creature of the woods. Not a twig snapped, not a leaf rustled, as from bush to fallen log, from tree trunk to rock, he crept, always in the black shadows, or behind some object.

But there were still other eyes on Old Dewey that night, and sharp ears heard the big woodsman climbing out of the ravine, if Ollie did not. When the young man in the clear light of the moon crossed the Old Trail, a figure near the clump of trees, where he had sat with his two friends that day, dropped quietly behind a big rock, half hidden in the bushes. As the giant crept toward the Lookout, this figure followed, showing but little less skill than the mountaineer himself. Once a loose stone rattled slightly, and the big fellow turned his head; but the figure was lying behind a log that the other had just left. When Young Matt finally reached the position as close to Ollie as he could go without certain discovery, the figure also came to a rest, not far away.

The moments passed very slowly now to the man crouching in the shadows. Ollie looked at his watch. It was early yet to one accustomed to late hours in the city. Young Matt heard distinctly the snap of the case as the watch was closed and returned to its owner's pocket. Then Stewart lighted a cigar, and flipped the burned out match almost into his unseen companion's face.

It seemed to Young Matt that he had been there for hours. Years ago he left his home yonder on the ridge, to look for stray stock. They must have forgotten him long before this. The quiet cabin in the Hollow, and his friend, the shepherd, too, were far away. In all that lonely mountain there was no one--no one but that man on the rock there; that man, and himself. How bright the moon was!

Suddenly another form appeared upon the scene. It came creeping around the hill from beyond the Lookout. It was a long, low, lithe-bodied, form that moved with the easy, gliding movements of a big cat. Noiselessly the soft padded feet fell upon the hard rock and loose gravel of the old pathway; the pathway along which so many things had gone for their kill, or had gone to be killed.

Young Matt saw it the moment it appeared. He started in his place. He recognized it instantly as the most feared of all the wild things in the mountain wilderness--a panther. He saw it sniff the footprints on the trail--Ollie's footprints. He saw it pause and crouch as it caught sight of the man on the rock.

Instantly wild and unwelcome thoughts burned within the strong man's brain. The woodsman knew why that thing had come. Against such a foe the unconscious weakling on the rock there, calmly puffing his cigar, would have no chance whatever. He would not even know of its presence, until it had made its spring, and its fangs were in his neck. The man of the wilderness knew just how it would be done. It would be over in a minute.

The giant clenched his teeth. Why had he not gone on to his home after leaving the shepherd? Why had he followed that impulse to stand again where he had stood that afternoon? Above all, what had possessed him--what had led him to creep to his present position? He shot a quick glance around. How bright--how bright the moon was!

The panther turned aside from the trail and with silent grace leaped to the ledge, gaining a position on a level with Ollie-- still unconscious of its presence. A cold sweat broke out on the big man's forehead. The great hands worked. His breath came in quick gasps. It could not be laid to his door. He had only to withdraw, to stop his ears and run, as he had fled that afternoon. God! How slowly that thing crept forward, crouching low upon its belly, its tail twitching from side to side, nearer, nearer. Young Matt felt smothered. He loosened the collar of his shirt. The moon--the moon was so bright! He could even see the muscles in the beast's heavy neck and shoulders working under the sleek skin.

Suddenly the words of the shepherd came to him, as though shouted in his ears, "Remember the other beast, lad. Don't you see it is this victory only that gives you the right to think of yourself as a man?"

Ollie was almost brushed from his place as the big mountaineer sprang from the shadow, while the panther, startled by the appearance of another man upon the rock, paused. An exclamation of fright burst from young Stewart, as he took in the situation. And the giant by his side reached forth a hand to push him back, as he growled, "Shut up and get out of the way! This here's my fight!"

At the movement the wild beast seemed to understand that the newcomer was there to rob him of his prey. With a snarl, it crouched low again, gathering its muscles for the spring. The giant waited. Suddenly the sharp crack of a rifle rang out on the still night, echoing and echoing along the mountain.

The panther leaped, but fell short. The startled men on the rock saw it threshing the ground in its death struggle.

"That was a lucky shot for you," said Ollie.

"Lucky for me," repeated Young Matt slowly, eyeing his well dressed companion; "Well, yes, I reckon it was."

"Who fired it?"

The big fellow shook his head in a puzzled way.

Stewart looked surprised. "Wasn't it someone hunting with you?"

"With me? Huntin'? Not to-night;" muttered the other still searching the hill side.

"Well, I'd like to know what you were doing here alone, then;" said Ollie suspiciously.

At his tone, Young Matt turned upon him savagely, "'Tain't none of your business, what I was a doin' here, that I can see. I reckon these hills are free yet. But it's mighty lucky for us both that someone was 'round, whoever he is. Maybe you ain't thankful that that critter ain't fastened on your neck. But I am. An' I'm goin' to find out who fired that shot if I can."

He started forward, but Ollie called imperiously, "Hold on there a minute, I want to say something to you first." The other paused, and young Stewart continued; "I don't know what you mean by prowling around this time of night. But it looks as though you were watching me. I warn you fairly, don't try it again. I know how you feel toward Miss Lane, and I know how you have been with her while I was away. I tell you it's got to stop. She is to be my wife, and I shall protect her. You may just as well--"

He got no further. The big man sprang forward to face him with a look that made the dandy shrink with fear. "Protect Sammy Lane from me! Protect her, you! You know what I feel toward her? You!" He fairly choked with his wild rage.

The frightened Ollie drew a weapon from his pocket, but, with a snarling laugh, the big fellow reached out his great hand and the shining toy went whirling through the air. "Go home," said the giant. "Damn you, go home! Don't you hear? For God's sake get out o' my sight 'fore I forget again!"

Ollie went.