Chapter XXVII. The Champion.
 

A big wagon, with two men on the seat, appeared coming up the valley road. It was Wash Gibbs and a crony from the river. They had stopped at the distillery on their way, and were just enough under the influence of drink to be funny and reckless.

When they caught sight of Ollie Stewart and Miss Lane, Wash said something to his companion, at which both laughed uproariously. Upon reaching the couple, the wagon came to a stop, and after looking at Ollie for some moments, with the silent gravity of an owl, Gibbs turned to the young lady, "Howdy, honey. Where did you git that there? Did your paw give hit to you fer a doll baby?"

Young Stewart's face grew scarlet, but he said nothing.

"Can't hit talk?" continued Gibbs with mock interest.

Glancing at her frightened escort, the girl replied, "You drive on, Wash Gibbs. You're in no condition to talk to anyone."

An ugly leer came over the brutal face of the giant; "Oh, I ain't, ain't I? You think I'm drunk. But I ain't, not so mighty much. Jest enough t' perten me up a pepper grain." Then, turning to his companion, who was grinning in appreciation of the scene, he continued, "Here, Bill; you hold th' ribbens, an' watch me tend t' that little job I told you I laid out t' do first chance I got." At this, Ollie grew as pale as death. Once he started as if to escape, but he could not under Sammy's eyes.

As Wash was climbing down from the wagon, he caught sight of Young Matt standing in the door of the mill shed. "Hello, Matt," he called cheerfully; "I ain't a lookin' fer you t' day; 'tend t' you some other time. Got more important business jest now."

Young Matt made no reply, nor did he move to interfere. In the backwoods every man must fight his own battles, so long as he fights with men. When Stewart was in danger from the panther, it was different. This was man to man. Sammy, too, reared in the mountains, and knowing the code, waited quietly to see what her lover would do.

Coming to Ollie's side, Gibbs said, "Git down, young feller, an' look at yer saddle."

"You go on, and let me alone, Wash Gibbs. I've never hurt you." Ollie's naturally high pitched voice was shrill with fear.

Wash paused, looked back at his companion in the wagon; then to Young Matt, and then to the girl on the horse. "That's right," he said, shaking his head with ponderous gravity. "You all hear him. He ain't never hurted me, nary a bit. Nary a bit, ladies an' gentlemen. But, good Lord! look at him! Hain't hit awful!" Suddenly he reached out one great arm, and jerked the young man from his horse, catching him with the other hand as he fell, and setting him on his feet in the middle of the road.

Ollie was like a child in the grasp of his huge tormentor, and, in spite of her indignation, a look of admiration flashed over Sammy's face at the exhibition of the bully's wonderful physical strength; an admiration, that only heightened the feeling of shame for her lover's weakness.

Gibbs addressed his victim, "Now, dolly, you an' me's goin' t' play a little. Come on, let's see you dance." The other struggled feebly a moment and attempted to draw a pistol, whereupon Wash promptly captured the weapon, remarking in a sad tone as he did so, "You hadn't ought t' tote such a gun as that, sonny; hit might go off. Hit's a right pretty little thing, ain't hit?" he continued, holding his victim with one hand, and examining the pearl handled, nickel plated weapon with great interest. "Hit sure is. But say, dolly, if you was ever t' shoot me with that there, an' I found hit out, I'd sure be powerful mad. You hear me, now, an' don't you pack that gun no more; not in these mountains. Hit ain't safe."

The fellow in the wagon roared with delight at these witticisms, and looked from Young Matt to Sammy to see if they also appreciated the joke.

"Got any more pretties!" asked Gibbs of his victim. "No? Let's see." Catching the young man by the waist, he lifted him bodily, and, holding him head downward, shook him roughly. Again Sammy felt her blood tingle at the feat of strength.

Next holding Ollie with one huge hand at the back of his neck, Wash said, "See that feller in th' wagon there? He's a mighty fine gentleman; friend o' mine. Make a bow t' him." As he finished, with his free hand he struck the young man a sharp blow in the stomach, with the result that Stewart did make a bow, very low, but rather too suddenly to be graceful.

The fellow in the wagon jumped up and bowed again and again; "Howdy, Mr. City Man; howdy. Mighty proud t' meet up with you; mighty proud, you bet!"

The giant whirled his captive toward the mill. "See that feller yonder? I'm goin' t' lick him some day. Make a face at him." Catching Ollie by the nose and chin, he tried to force his bidding, while the man in the wagon made the valley ring with his laughter. Then Wash suddenly faced the helpless young man toward Sammy. "Now ladies and gentlemen," he said in the tones of a showman addressing an audience, "this here pretty little feller from th' city's goin' t' show us Hill-Billies how t' spark a gal."

The bully's friend applauded loudly, roaring at the top of his voice, "Marry 'em, Wash. Marry 'em. You can do hit as good as a parson! You'd make a good parson. Let's see how'd you go at hit."

The notion tickled the fancy of the giant, for it offered a way to make Sammy share the humiliation more fully. "Git down an' come here t' yer honey," he said to the girl. "Git down, I say," he repeated, when the young woman made no motion to obey.

"Indeed, I will not," replied Sammy shortly.

Her tone and manner angered Gibbs, and dropping Ollie he started toward the girl to take her from the horse by force. As he reached the pony's side, Sammy raised her whip and with all her strength struck him full across the face. The big ruffian drew back with a bellow of pain and anger. Then he started toward her again. "I'll tame you, you wild cat," he yelled. And Sammy raised her whip again.

But before Gibbs could touch the girl, a powerful hand caught him by the shoulder. "I reckon you've had fun enough, Wash Gibbs," remarked Young Matt in his slow way. "I ain't interfering between man and man, but you'd best keep your dirty hands off that lady."

The young woman's heart leaped at the sound of that deep calm voice that carried such a suggestion of power. And she saw that the blue eyes under the tumbled red brown locks were shining now like points of polished steel. The strong man's soul was rejoicing with the fierce joy of battle.

The big bully drew back a step, and glared at the man who had come between him and his victim; the man whom, for every reason, he hated. Lifting his huge paws, he said in a voice hoarse with deadly menace, "Dirty, be they? By hell, I'll wash 'em. An' hit won't be water that'll clean 'em, neither. Don't you know that no man ever crosses my trail an' lives?"

The other returned easily, "Oh, shucks! Get into your wagon and drive on. You ain't on Roark now. You're on Fall Creek, and over here you ain't no bigger'n anybody else."

While Young Matt was speaking, Gibbs backed slowly away, and, as the young man finished, suddenly drew the pistol he had taken from Ollie. With a quickness and lightness astonishing in one of his bulk and usually slow movements, the mountaineer leaped upon his big enemy. There was a short, sharp struggle, and Wash staggered backward, leaving the shining weapon in Young Matt's hand. "It might go off, you know," said the young fellow quietly, as he tossed the gun on the ground at Ollie's feet.

With a mad roar, Gibbs recovered himself and rushed at his antagonist. It was a terrific struggle; not the skillful sparring of trained fighters, but the rough and tumble battling of primitive giants. It was the climax of long months of hatred; the meeting of two who were by every instinct mortal enemies. Ollie shrank back in terror, but Sammy leaned forward in the saddle, her beautiful figure tense, her lips parted, and her face flushed with excitement.

It was soon evident that the big champion of the hills had at last met his match. As he realized this, a look of devilish cunning crept into the animal face of Gibbs, and he maneuvered carefully to bring his enemy's back toward the wagon.

Catching a look from his friend, over Young Matt's shoulder, the man in the wagon slipped quickly to the ground, and Sammy saw with horror a naked knife in his hand. She glanced toward Ollie appealingly, but that gentleman was helpless. The man with the knife began creeping cautiously toward the fighting men, keeping always behind Young Matt. The young woman felt as though an iron band held her fast. She could not move. She could not speak. Then Gibbs went down, and the girl's scream rang out, "Behind you, Matt! Look quick!"

As he recovered his balance from the effort that had thrown Wash, Young Matt heard her cry, saw the girl's look of horror, and her outstretched hand pointing. Like a flash he whirled just as the knife was lifted high for the murderous blow. It was over in an instant. Sammy saw him catch the wrist of the uplifted arm, heard a dull snap and a groan, saw the knife fall from the helpless hand, and then saw the man lifted bodily and thrown clear over the wagon, to fall helpless on the rocky ground. The woman gave a low cry, "Oh, what a man!"

Wash Gibbs, too, opened his eyes, just in time to witness the unheard-of feat, and to see the bare-armed young giant who performed it turn again, breathing heavily with his great exertion, but still ready to meet his big antagonist.

The defeated bully rose from the ground. The other stepped forward to meet him. But without a word, Gibbs climbed into the wagon and took up the reins. Before they could move, Young Matt had the mules by their heads. "You have forgotten something," he said quietly, pointing to the man on the ground, who was still unconscious from his terrible fall. "That there's your property. Take it along. We ain't got no use for such as that on Fall Creek."

Sullenly Wash climbed down and lifted his companion into the wagon. As Young Matt stood aside to let him go, the bully said, "I'll see you agin fer this."

The strong man only answered, "I reckon you'd better stay on Roark, Wash Gibbs. You got more room there."