Chapter XLIV. The Trail on the Sunlit Hills.
 

When Young Matt first knew that Sammy had sent Ollie back to the city with no promise to follow, he took to the woods, and returned only after miles of tramping over the wildest, roughest part of the country. The big fellow said no word, but on his face was a look that his father understood, and the old mountaineer felt his own blood move more quickly at the sight.

But when Sammy with her books was fully established in the Matthews home, and Young Matt seemed always, as the weeks went by, to find her reading things that he could not understand, he was made to realize more fully what her studies with the shepherd meant. He came to feel that she had already crossed the threshold into that world where Mr. Howitt lived. And, thinking that he himself could never enter, he grew lonely and afraid.

With the quickness that was so marked in her character, Sammy grasped the meaning of his trouble almost before Young Matt himself knew fully what it was. Then the girl, with much care and tact, set about helping him to see the truths which the shepherd had revealed to her.

All through the summer and fall, when the day's work was done, or on a Sunday afternoon, they were together, and gradually the woods and the hills, with all the wild life that is in them, began to have for the young man a new meaning; or, rather, he learned little by little to read the message that lay on the open pages; first a word here and there, then sentences, then paragraphs, and soon he was reading alone, as he tramped the hills for stray stock, or worked in the mountain field. The idle days of winter and the long evenings were spent in reading aloud from the books that had come to mean most to her.

So she led him on slowly, along the way that her teacher had pointed out to her, but always as they went, he saw her going before, far ahead, and he knew that in the things that men call education, he could never hope to stand by her side. But he was beginning to ask, are there not after all things that lie still deeper in life than even these?

Often he would go to his old friend in the Hollow with some thought, and the shepherd, seeing how it was, would smile as he helped the lad on his way. The scholar looked forward with confidence to the time when young Matt would discover for himself, as Sammy had found for herself, that the only common ground whereon men and women may meet in safety is the ground of their manhood and womanhood.

And so it was, on that spring morning when the young giant felt the red life throbbing strongly in his great limbs, as he followed his team to and fro across the field. And in his voice, as he shouted to his horses at the end of the furrow, there was something under the words, something of a longing, something also of a challenge.

Sammy was going to spend the day with her friends on Jake Creek. She had not been to see Mandy since the night of her father's death. As she went, she stopped at the lower end of the field to shout a merry word to the man with the plow, and it was sometime later when the big fellow again started his team. The challenge in his tone had grown bolder.

Sammy returned that afternoon in time for the evening meal, and Aunt Mollie thought, as the girl came up the walk, that the young woman had never looked so beautiful. "Why, honey," she said, "you're just a bubblin' over with life. Your cheeks are as rosy; your eyes are as sparklin', you're fairly shinin' all over. Your ride sure done you good."

The young woman replied with a hug that made her admirer gasp. "Law, child; you're strong as a young panther. You walk like one too; so kind of strong, easy like."

The girl laughed. "I hope I don't impress everybody that way, Aunt Mollie. I don't believe I want to be like a panther. I'd rather be like--like--"

"Like what, child?"

"Like you, just like you; the best, the very best woman in the whole world, because you've got the best and biggest heart." She looked back over her shoulder laughing, as she ran into the house.

When Young Matt came in from the field, Sammy went out to the barn, while he unharnessed his team. "Are you very tired to- night?" she asked.

The big fellow smiled, "Tired? Me tired? Where do you want to go? Haven't you ridden enough to-day? I should think you'd be tired yourself."

"Tired? Me tired?" said the girl. "I don't want to ride. I want to walk. It's such a lovely evening, and there's going to be a moon. I have been thinking all day that I would like to walk over home after supper, if you cared to go."

That night the work within the house and the chores about the barn were finished in a remarkably short time. The young man and woman started down the Old Trail like two school children, while the father and mother sat on the porch and heard their voices die away on the mountain side below.

The girl went first along the little path, moving with that light, sure step that belongs only to perfect health, the health of the woods and hills. The man followed, walking with the same sure, easy step; strength and power revealed in every movement of his body. Two splendid creatures they were--masterpieces of the Creator's handiwork; made by Him who created man, male and female, and bade them have dominion "over every living thing that moveth upon the earth;" kings by divine right.

In the belt of timber, where the trail to the ranch branches off, they met the shepherd on his way to the house for an evening visit. The old man paused only long enough to greet them, and pushed on up the hill, for he saw by their faces that the time was come.

Sammy had grown very quiet when they rounded the shoulder of Dewey, and they went in silence down to the cabin on the southern slope of the mountain. The girl asked Young Matt to wait for her at the gate, and, going to the house, she entered alone.

A short time she remained in the familiar rooms, then, slipping out through the rear door, ran through the woods to the little glen back of the house. Dropping beside the mound she buried her face in the cool grass, as she whispered, "Oh, Daddy, Daddy Jim! I wish you were here to-night; this night that means so much to me. Do you know how happy I am, Daddy? Do you know, I wonder?" The twilight deepened, "I must go now, Daddy; I must go to him. You told me you would trust me anywhere with him. He is waiting for me, now; but I wish--oh, I wish that you were here to-night, Daddy Jim!"

Quickly she made her way back to the cabin, passed through the house, and rejoined Young Matt. The two returned silently up the mountain side, to the higher levels, where the light still lingered, though the sun was down. At the Lookout they stopped.

"We'll wait for the moon, here," she said; and so seated on a big rock, they watched the last of the evening go out from the west. From forest depth and mountain side came the myriad voices of Nature's chorus, blending softly in the evening hymn; and, rising clear above the low breathed tones, yet in perfect harmony, came a whip-poor-will's plaintive call floating up from the darkness below; the sweet cooing of a wood-dove in a tree on the ridge, and the chirping of a cricket in a nearby crevice of the ledge. Like shadowy spirits, the bats flitted here and there in the gathering gloom. The two on the mountain's shoulder felt themselves alone above it all; above it all, yet still a part of all.

Then the moon looked over the mountain behind them turning Mutton Hollow into a wondrous sea of misty light out of which the higher hills lifted their heads like fairy islands. The girl spoke, "Come, Matt; we must go now. Help me down."

He slipped from his seat and stood beside the rock with uplifted arms. Sammy leaned forward and placed her hands upon his shoulders. He felt her breath upon his forehead. The next instant he held her close.

So they went home along the trail that is nobody knows how old, and the narrow path that was made by those who walked one before the other, they found wide enough for two.

Dad Howitt, returning to the ranch, saw them coming so in the moonlight, and slipped aside from the path into the deeper shadows. As they passed, the old shepherd, scholar and poet stood with bowed, uncovered head. When they were gone and their low voices were no longer heard, he said aloud, "What God hath joined; what God hath joined."

And this way runs the trail that lies along the higher, sunlit hills where those who journey see afar and the light lingers even when the day is done.