Chapter XXVI. Ollie's Dilemma.
 

As "Preachin' Bill" used to say, "Every hound has hits strong pints, but some has more of 'em."

Young Stewart was not without graces pleasing to the girl whom he hoped to make his wife. He seemed to know instinctively all those little attentions in which women so delight, and he could talk, too, very entertainingly of the things he had seen. To the simple girl of the backwoods, he succeeded in making the life in the city appear very wonderful, indeed. Neither was Sammy insensible to the influence of his position, and his prospective wealth, with the advantages that these things offered. Then, with all this, he loved her dearly; and when, if you please, was ever a woman wholly unmoved by the knowledge that she held first place in a man's heart?

For two weeks they were together nearly every day, sometimes spending the afternoon at the girl's home on the side of Dewey, or roving over the nearby hills; sometimes going for long rides through the great woods to pass the day with friends, returning in the evening to find Jim smoking in the doorway of the darkened cabin.

When Mr. Lane, at the end of the first week, asked his daughter, in his point blank fashion, what she was going to do with young Stewart, the girl answered, "He must have his chance, Daddy. He mast have a good fair chance. I--I don't know what it is, but there is--I--I don't know, Daddy. I am sure I loved him when he want away, that is, I think I am sure." And Jim, looking into her eyes, agreed heartily; then he took down his violin to make joyful music far into the night.

Ollie did not see Young Matt after their meeting on the Lookout. The big fellow, too, avoided the couple, and Sammy, for some reason, carefully planned their rides so that they would not be likely to meet their neighbor an the ridge. Once, indeed, they called at the Matthews place, walking over in the evening, but that was when Sammy knew that Young Matt was not at home.

Day after day as they talked together, the girl tried honestly to enter into the life of the man she had promised to marry. But always there was that feeling of something lacking. Just what that something was, or why she could not feel completely satisfied, Sammy did not understand. But the day was soon to come when she would know the real impulses of her heart.

Since that first afternoon, Ollie had not tried to force his suit. While, in a hundred little ways, he had not failed to make her feel his love, he had never openly attempted the role of lover. He was conscious that to put the girl constantly upon the defensive would be disastrous to his hopes; and in this, he was wise. But the time had come when he must speak, for it was the last day of his visit. He felt that he could not go back to the city without a definite understanding.

Sammy, too, realized this, but still she was not ready to give an answer to the question he would ask. They had been to the Forks, and were on their way home. As they rode slowly under the trees, the man pleaded his cause, but the woman could only shake her head and answer quite truthfully, "Ollie, I don't know."

"But tell me, Sammy, is there any one in the way?"

Again she shook her head, "I--I think not."

"You think not! Don't you know?" The young man reined his horse closer to the brown pony. "Let me help you decide, dear. You are troubled because of the change you see in me, and because the life that I have tried to tell you about is so strange, so different from this. You need not fear. With me, you will very soon be at home there; as much at home as you are here. Come, dear, let me answer for you."

The girl lifted her face to his; "Oh, if you only could!" But, even as she spoke, there came to her the memory of that ride home from the party at Ford's, when her pony had crowded close to the big white faced sorrel. It was Brownie this time who was pulled sharply aside. The almost involuntary act brought a quick flush to the young man's cheek, and he promptly reined his own horse to the right, thus placing the full width of the road between them. So they went down the hill into the valley, where Fall Creek tumbled and laughed on its rocky way.

A thread of blue smoke, curling lazily up from the old stack, and the sound of a hammer, told them that some one was at the mill. Sammy was caught by a sudden impulse. "Why, that must be Young Matt!" she exclaimed. "Let us stop. I do believe you haven't seen him since you came home."

"I don't want to see him, nor any one else, now," returned Ollie. "This is our last evening together, Sammy, and I want you all to myself. Let us go up the old Roark trail, around Cox's Bald, and home through the big, low gap." He checked his horse as he spoke, for they had already passed the point where the Roark trail leaves Fall Creek.

But the girl was determined to follow her impulse. "You can stop just a minute," she urged. "You really ought to see Matt, you know. We can ride back this way if you like. It's early yet."

But the man held his place, and replied shortly, "I tell you I don't want to see anybody, and I am very sure that Young Matt doesn't want to see me, not with you, anyway."

Sammy flushed at this, and answered with some warmth, "There is no reason in the world why you should refuse to meet an old friend; but you may do as you please, of course. Only I am going to the mill." So saying, she started down the valley, and as there was really nothing else for him to do, the man followed.

As they approached the mill, Sammy called for Young Matt, who immediately left his work, and came to them. The big fellow wore no coat, and his great arms were bare, while his old shirt, patched and faded and patched again, was soiled by engine grease and perspiration. His trousers, too, held in place by suspenders repaired with belt lacing and fastened with a nail, were covered with sawdust and dirt. His hands and arms and even his face were treated liberally with the same mixture that stained his clothing; and the shaggy red brown hair, uncovered, was sadly tumbled. In his hand he held a wrench. The morrow was grinding day, and he had been making some repairs about the engine.

Altogether, as the backwoodsman came forward, he presented a marked contrast to the freshly clad, well groomed gentleman from the city. And to the woman, the contrast was not without advantages to the man in the good clothes. The thought flashed through her mind that the men who would work for Ollie in the shops would look like this. It was the same old advantage; the advantage that the captain has over the private; the advantage of rank, regardless of worth.

Sammy greeted Young Matt warmly. "I just told Ollie that it was too bad he had not seen you. You were away the night we called at your house, you know; and he is going home to-morrow."

The giant looked from one to the other. Evidently Sammy had not heard of that meeting at the Lookout, and Stewart's face grew red as he saw what was in the big fellow's mind. "I'm mighty glad to see you again," he said lamely. "I told Sammy that I had seen you, but she has forgotten."

"Oh, no, I haven't," replied the girl. "You said that you saw him in the field as you passed the first day you came, but that you were in such a hurry you didn't stop."

At this Ollie forced a loud laugh, and remarked that he was in something of a hurry that day. He hoped that in the girl's confusion the point might be overlooked.

But the mountaineer was not to be sidetracked so easily. Ollie's poor attempt only showed more clearly that he had purposely refrained from telling Sammy of the might when Young Matt had interfered to save his life. To the simple straight-forward lad of the woods, such a course revealed a spirit most contemptible. Raising his soiled hands and looking straight at Ollie, he said, deliberately, "I'm sorry, seein' as this is the first time we've met, that I can't shake hands with you. This here's clean dirt, though."

Sammy was puzzled. Ollie's objection to their calling at the mill, his evident embarrassment at the meeting, and something in Young Matt's voice that hinted at a double meaning in his simple words, all told her that there was something beneath the surface which she did not understand.

After his one remark to her escort, the woodsman turned to the girl, and, in spite of Sammy's persistent attempts to bring the now sullen Ollie into the conversation, ignored the man completely. When they had talked for a few moments, Young Matt said, "I reckon you'll have to excuse me a minute, Sammy; I left the engine in such a hurry when you called that I'll have to look at it again. It won't take more'n a minute."

As he disappeared in the mill shed, the young lady turned to her companion, "What's the matter with you two? Have you met and quarreled since you came home?"

Fate was being very unkind to Ollie. He replied gruffly, "You'll have to ask your friend. I told you how it would be. The greasy hobo doesn't like to see me with you, and hasn't manners enough even to hide his feelings. Come, let us go on."

A look that was really worth seeing came into the girl's fine eyes, but she only said calmly; "Matt will be back in a minute."

"All the more reason why we should go. I should think you have had enough. I am sure I have."

The young woman was determined now to know what lay at the bottom of all this. She said quietly, but with a great deal of decision, "You may go on home if you wish; I am going to wait here until Young Matt comes back."

Ollie was angry now in good earnest. He had not told Sammy of the incident at the Lookout because he felt that the story would bring the backwoodsman into a light altogether too favorable. He thought to have the girl safely won before he left the hills; then it would not matter. That Young Matt would have really saved Ollie's life at the risk of his own there was no doubt. And Stewart realized that his silence under such circumstances would look decidedly small and ungrateful to the girl. To have the story told at this critical moment was altogether worse than if he had generously told of the incident at once. He saw, too, that Sammy guessed at some thing beneath the surface, and he felt uneasy in remaining until Young Matt came back to renew the conversation. And yet he feared to leave. At this stage of his dilemma, he was relieved from his plight in a very unexpected manner.