Chapter XXVIII. What Pete Told Sammy.
 

No word was spoken by either Sammy or her lover, while their horses were climbing the mill road, and both were glad when they reached the top of the ridge, and turned into the narrow path where they would need to ride one before the other. It was not easy to ride side by side, when each was busy with thoughts not to be spoken.

At the gate, Ollie dismounted to help the girl from her horse. But before he could reach the pony's side, Sammy sprang lightly to the ground, unassisted. Opening the big gate, she turned Brownie loose in the yard, while the man stood watching her, a baffled look upon his face. He had always done these little things for her. To be refused at this time was not pleasant. The feeling that he was on the outside grew stronger.

Turning to his own horse, Ollie placed his foot in the stirrup to mount, when Sammy spoke,--perhaps she felt that she had been a little unkind--"You were going to stay to supper," she said.

"Not to-night," he answered, gaining his seat in the saddle, and picking up the reins.

"But you are going to leave in the morning, are you not? You--you must not go like this."

He dropped the reins to the horse's neck again, "Look here, Sammy, do you blame me because I did not fight that big bully?"

Sammy did not reply.

"What could I do? You know there is not another man in the mountains beside Young Matt who could have done it. Surely you cannot blame me."

The young woman moved uneasily, "No, certainly not. I do not blame you in the least. I--but it was very fortunate that Young Matt was there, wasn't it?" The last sentence slipped out before she knew.

Ollie retorted angrily, "It seems to be very fortunate for him. He will be a greater hero than ever, now, I suppose. If he is wise, he will stay in the backwoods to be worshipped for he'll find that his size won't count for much in the world. He's a great man here, where he can fight like a beast, but his style wouldn't go far where brains are of value. It would be interesting to see him in town; a man who never saw a railroad."

Sammy lifted her head quickly at this, and fixed her eyes on the man's face with that wide, questioning gaze that reminded one so of her father, "I never saw a railroad, either; not that I can remember; though, I suppose we must have crossed one or two on our way to Texas when I was a baby. Is it the railroads then that makes one so--so superior?"

The man turned impatiently in the saddle, "You know what I mean."

"Yes," she answered slowly. "I think I do know what you mean."

Ollie lifted the reins again from his horse's neck, and angered them nervously. "I'd better go now; there's no use talking about this to-night. I won't leave in the morning, as I had planned. I-- I can't go like this." There was a little catch in his voice. "May I come again to-morrow afternoon, Sammy?"

"Yes, you had better go now, and come back to-morrow."

"And Sammy, won't you try to think that I am not altogether worthless, even if I am not big enough to fight Wash Gibbs? You are sure that you do not blame me for what happened at the mill?"

"No," she said; "of course not. You could not help it. Why should I blame anyone for that which he cannot help?"

Then Ollie rode away, and Sammy, going to her pony, stood petting the little horse, while she watched her lover up the Old Trail, and still there was that wide, questioning look in her eyes. As Ollie passed from sight around the hill above, the girl slipped out of the gate, and a few minutes later stood at the Lookout, where she could watch her lover riding along the ridge. She saw him pass from the open into the fringe of timber near the big gap; and, a few minutes later, saw him reappear beyond the deer lick. Still she watched as he moved along the rim of the Hollow, looking in the distance like a toy man on a toy horse; watched until he passed from sight into the timber again, and was gone. And all the time that questioning look was in her eyes.

Did she blame Ollie that he had played so poorly his part in the scene at the mill. No, she told herself over and over again, as though repeating a lesson; no, Ollie was not to blame, and yet--

She knew that he had spoken truly when he said that there were things that counted for more than brute strength. But was there not something more than brute strength in the incident? Was there not that which lay deeper? something of which the brute strength, after all, was only an expression? The girl stamped her foot impatiently, as she exclaimed aloud, "Oh, why did he not try to do something? He should have forced Wash Gibbs to beat him into insensibility rather than to have submitted so tamely to being played with."

In the distance she saw the shepherd following his flock down the mountain, and the old scholar, who always watched the Lookout, when in the vicinity, for a glimpse of his pupil, waved his hand in greeting as he moved slowly on after his charges. It was growing late. Her father, too, would be coming home for his supper. But as she rose to go, a step on the mountain side above caught her attention, and, looking up, she saw Pete coming toward the big rock. Sammy greeted the youth kindly, "I haven't seen Pete for days and days; where has he been?"

"Pete's been everywhere; an' course I've been with him," replied the lad with his wide, sweeping gesture. Then throwing himself at full length at the girl's feet, he said, abruptly, "Pete was here that night, and God, he was here, too. Couldn't nobody else but God o' done it. The gun went bang, and a lot more guns went bang, bang, all along the mountains. And the moonlight things that was a dancin' quit 'cause they was scared; and that panther it just doubled up and died. Matt and Ollie wasn't hurted nary a bit. Pete says it was God done that; He was sure in the hills that night."

Sammy was startled. "Matt and Ollie, a panther? What do you mean, boy?"

The troubled look shadowed the delicate face, as the lad shook his head; "Don't mean nothin', Sammy, not me. Nobody can't mean nothin', can they?"

"But what does Pete mean? Does Pete know about it?"

"Oh, yes, course Pete knows everything. Don't Sammy know 'bout that night when God was in the hills?" He was eager now, with eyes wide and face aglow.

"No," said Sammy, "I do not know. Will Pete tell me all about it?"

The strange youth seated himself on the rock, facing the valley below, saying in a low tone, "Ollie was a settin' like this, all still; just a smokin' and a watchin' the moonlight things that was dancin' over the tops of the trees down there." Then leaping to his feet the boy ran a short way along the ledge, to come stealing back, crouching low, as he whispered, "It come a creepin' and a creepin' towards Ollie, and he never knowed nothin' about it. But Matt he knowed, and God he knowed too." Wonderingly, the girl watched his movement. Suddenly he sprang to the rock again, and facing the imaginary beast, cried in childish imitation of a man's deep voice, "Get out of the way. This here's my fight." Then in his own tones, "It was sure scared when Young Matt jumped on the rock. Everything's scared of Matt when he talks like that. It was mad, too, 'cause Matt he wouldn't let it get Ollie. And it got ready to jump at Matt, and Matt he got ready for a tussle, and Ollie he got out of the way. And all the moonlight things stopped dancin', and the shadow things come out to see the fight." He had lowered his voice again almost to a whisper. Sammy was breathless. "Bang!" cried the lad, clapping his hands and shouting the words; "Bang! Bang! God, he fired and all the guns in the hills went off, and that panther it just doubled up and died. It would sure got Ollie, though, if Matt hadn't a jumped on the rock when he did. But do you reckon it could o' got Matt, if God hadn't been here that night?"

It was all too clearly portrayed to be mistaken. "Sammy needn't be afeared," continued Pete, seeing the look on the girl's face. "It can't come back no more. It just naturally can't, you know, Sammy; 'cause God he killed it plumb dead. And Pete dragged it way over on yon side of the ridge and the buzzards got it."