Chapter XXXI. Castle Building.
 

The corn was big enough to cultivate the first time, and Young Matt with Old Kate was hard at work in the field west of the house.

It was nearly three weeks since the incident at the mill, since which time the young fellow had not met Sammy Lane to talk with her. He had seen her, though, at a distance nearly every day, for the girl had taken up her studies again, and spent most of her time out on the hills with the shepherd. That day he saw her as she turned into the mill road at the lower corner of the field, on her way to the Forks. And he was still thinking of her three hours later, as he sat on a stump in the shade of the forest's edge, while his horse was resting.

Young Matt recalled the fight at the mill with a wild joy in his heart. Under any circumstances it was no small thing to have defeated the champion strong man and terror of the hills. It was a glorious thing to have done the deed for the girl he loved, and under her eyes. Sammy might give herself to Ollie, now, and go far away to the great world, but she could never forget the man who had saved her from insult, when her lover was far too weak to save even himself. And Young Matt would stay in the hills alone, but always he would have the knowledge and the triumph of this thing that he had done. Yes, it would be easier now, but still--still the days would be years when there was no longer each morning the hope that somewhere before the day was gone he would see her.

The sun fell hot and glaring on the hillside field, and in the air was the smell of the freshly turned earth. High up in the blue a hawk circled and circled again. A puff of air came sighing through the forest, touched lightly the green blades in the open, slipped over the ridge, and was lost in the sky beyond. Old Kate, with head down, was dreaming of cool springs in shady dells, and a little shiny brown lizard with a bright blue tail crept from under the bottom rail of the fence to see why the man was so still.

The man turned his head quickly; the lizard dodged under the rail; and old Kate awoke with a start. Someone was coming along the road below. Young Matt knew the step of that horse, as well as he knew the sound of old Kate's bell, or the neigh of his own sorrel.

The brown pony stopped at the lower corner of the field, and a voice called, "You'd better be at work. I don't believe you have ploughed three rows since I passed."

The big fellow went eagerly down the hill to the fence. "I sure ought to o' done better'n that, for it's been long enough since you went by. I always notice, though, that it gets a heap farther to the other side of the field and back about this time o' day. What's new over to the Forks?"

Sammy laughed, "Couldn't hear a thing but how the champion strong man was beaten at his own game. Uncle Ike says, 'Ba thundas! You tell Young Matt that he'd better come over. A man what can ride Wash Gibbs a bug huntin' is too blamed good a man t' stay at home all th' time. We want him t' tell us how he done it. Ba thundas! He'll be gittin' a job with th' gov'ment next. What!'"

The man crossed his arms on the top rail of the worm fence, and laughed. It was good to have Sammy deliver her message in just that way. "I reckon Uncle Ike thinks I ought to go dancin' all over the hills now, with a chip on my shoulder," he said.

"I don't think you'll do that," she returned. "Dad Howitt wouldn't, would he? But I must hurry on now, or Daddy's supper won't be ready when he comes in. I stopped to give you these papers for your father." She handed him the package. "And--and I want to thank you, Matt, for what you did at the mill. All my life you have been fighting for me, and--and I have never done anything for you. I wish I could do something--something that would show you how--how I care."

Her voice faltered. He was so big and strong, and there was such a look of hopeless love and pain on his rugged face--a face that was as frank and open as a child's. Here was a man who had no need for the shallow cunning of little fox-like men. This one would go open and bold on his way, and that which he could not take by his strength he would not have. Had she not seen him in battle? Had she not seen his eyes like polished steel points? Deep down in her heart, the woman felt a thrill of triumph that such a man should stand so before her. She must go quickly.

Young Matt climbed slowly up the hill again to his seat on the stump. Here he watched until across the Hollow he saw the pony and his rider come out of the timber and move swiftly along the ridge; watched until they faded into a tiny spot, rounded the mountain and disappeared from sight. Then, lifting his eyes, he looked away beyond the long blue line that marked the distant horizon. Some day he would watch Sammy ride away and she would go on, and on, and on, beyond that blue line, put of his life forever.

Ollie had gone over there to live, and the shepherd had come from there. What was that world like, he wondered. Between the young man of the mountains and that big world yonder there had always been a closely shut door. He had seen the door open to Ollie, and now Sammy stood on the threshold. Would it ever open for him? And, if it did, what? Then came a thought that made his blood leap. Might he not force it open? The shepherd had told him of others who had done so.

Young Matt felt a strong man's contempt for the things Ollie had gotten out of the world, but he stood in awe before Mr. Howitt. He told himself, now, that he would look for and find the things yonder that made Dad the man he was. He would carry to the task his splendid strength. Nothing should stop him. And Sammy, when she understood that he was going away to be like the shepherd, would wait awhile to give him his chance. Surely, she would wait when he told her that. But how should he begin?

Looking up again, his eye caught a slow, shifting patch of white on the bench above Lost Creek, where the little stream begins its underground course. The faint bark of a dog came to him through the thin still air, and the patch of white turned off into the trail that leads to the ranch. "Dad!" exclaimed the young man in triumph. Dad should tell him how. He had taught Sammy.

And so while the sunlight danced on the green field, and old Kate slept in the lengthening shadows of the timber, the lad gave himself to his dreams and built his castles--as we all have builded.

His dreaming was interrupted as the supper bell rang, and, with the familiar sound, a multitude of other thoughts came crowding in; the father and mother--they were growing old. Would it do to leave them alone with the graves on the hill yonder, and the mystery of the Hollow? And there was the place to care for, and the mill. Who but Young Matt could get work from the old engine?

It was like the strong man that the fight did not last long. Young Matt's fights never lasted very long. By the time he had unhitched old Kate from the cultivator, it was finished. The lad went down the hill, his bright castles in ruin--even as we all have gone, or must sometime go down the hill with our brightest castles in ruin.