Chapter VII. What is Love?
 

Sammy Lane rode very slowly on her way home from the Matthews place that morning after the stranger had arrived. She started out at her usual reckless gait, but that was because she knew that Young Matt was watching her.

Once in the timber, the brown pony was pulled to a walk, and by the time they came out into the open again, the little horse, unrebuked by his mistress, was snatching mouthfuls of grass as he strolled along the trail. Sammy was thinking; thinking very seriously. Aunt Mollie's parting question had stirred the girl deeply.

Sammy had seen few people who did not belong to the backwoods. The strangers she had met were hunters or cattlemen, and these had all been, in dress and manner, not unlike the natives themselves. This man, who had come so unexpectedly out of the mists the night before, was unlike anyone the young woman had ever known. Like Jed Holland, she felt somehow as if he were a superior being. The Matthews family were different in many ways from those born and raised in the hills. And Sammy's father, too, was different. But this stranger--it was quite as though he belonged to another world.

Coming to the big, low gap, the girl looked far away to the blue line of hills, miles, and miles away. The stranger had come from over these, she thought; and then she fell to wondering what that world beyond the farthest cloud-like ridge was like.

Of all the people Sammy had ever known, young Stewart was the only one who had seen even the edge of that world to tell her about it. Her father and her friends, the Matthews's, never talked of the old days. She had known Ollie from a child. With Young Matt they had gone to and from the log school house along the same road. Once, before Mr. Stewart's death, the boy had gone with his father for a day's visit to the city, and ever after had been a hero to his backwoods schoolmates. It was this distinction, really, that first won Sammy's admiration, and made them sweethearts before the girl's skirts had touched the tops of her shoes. Before the woman in her was fairly awake she had promised to be his wife; and they were going away now to live in that enchanted land.

Spying an extra choice bunch of grass a few steps to one side of the path, Brownie turned suddenly toward the valley; and the girl's eyes left the distant ridge for the little cabin and the sheep corral in Mutton Hollow. Sammy always spoke of that cabin as "Young Matt's house." And, all unbidden now, the thought came, who would live with the big fellow down there in the valley when she had gone far away to make her home with Ollie and his people in the city?

An impatient tug at the reins informed Brownie that his mistress was aware of his existence, and, for a time, the pony was obliged to pass many a luscious bunch of grass. But soon the reins fell slack again. The little horse moved slowly, and still more slowly, until, by the relaxed figure of his rider, he knew it was safe to again browse on the grass along the path.

So, wondering, dreaming, Sammy Lane rode down the trail that morning--the trail that is nobody knows how old. And on the hill back of the Matthews house a team was standing idle in the middle of the field.

At the big rock on the mountain side, where the trail seems to pause a moment before starting down to the valley, the girl slipped from her saddle, and, leaving Brownie to wander at will, climbed to her favorite seat. Half reclining in the warm sunshine, she watched the sheep feeding near, and laughed aloud as she saw the lambs with wagging tails, greedily suckling at their mother's sides; near by in a black-haw bush a mother bird sat on her nest; a gray mare, with a week old colt following on unsteady legs, came over the ridge; and not far away; a mother sow with ten squealing pigs came out of the timber. Keeping very still the young woman watched until they disappeared around the mountain. Then, lifting her arms above her head, she stretched her lithe form out upon the warm rocky couch with the freedom and grace of a wild thing of the woods.

Sammy Lane knew nothing of the laws and customs of the, so-called, best society. Her splendid young womanhood was not the product of those social traditions and rules that kill the instinct of her kind before it is fairly born. She was as free and as physically perfect as any of the free creatures that lived in the hills. And, keenly alive to the life that throbbed and surged about her, her woman's heart and soul responded to the spirit of the season. The droning of the bees in the blossoms that grew in a cranny of the rock; the tinkle, tinkle of the sheep bells, as the flock moved slowly in their feeding; and the soft breathing of Mother Earth was in her ears; while the gentle breeze that stirred her hair came heavy with the smell of growing things. Lying so, she looked far up into the blue sky where a buzzard floated on lazy wings. If she were up there she perhaps could see that world beyond the hills. Then suddenly a voice came to her, Aunt Mollie's voice, "How do you reckon you'll like bein' a fine lady, Sammy, and a livin' in the city with the big folks?"

The girl turned on her side and rising on one elbow looked again at Mutton Hollow with its little cabin half hidden in the timber. And, as she looked, slowly her rich red life colored cheek, and neck, and brow. With a gesture of impatience, Sammy turned away to her own home on the southern slope of the mountain, just in time to see a young woman ride into the clearing and dismount before the cabin door. It was her friend, Mandy Ford. The girl on the rock whistled to her pony, and, mounting, made her way down the hill.

All that day the strange guest at the Matthews place was the one topic of conversation between the two girls.

"Shucks," said Mandy, when Sammy had finished a very minute description of Mr. Howitt; "he's jest some revenue, like's not."

Sammy tossed her head; "Revenue! you ought to see him! Revenues don't come in no such clothes as them, and they don't talk like him, neither."

"Can't tell 'bout revenues," retorted the other. "Don't you mind how that'n fooled everybody over on th' bend last year? He was jest as common as common, and folks all 'lowed he was just one of 'em."

"But this one ain't like anybody that we ever met up with, and that's jest it," returned Sammy.

Mandy shook her head; "You say he ain't huntin'; he sure ain't buyin' cattle this time o' year; and he ain't a wantin' t' locate a comin' in on foot; what else can he be but a revenue?"

To which Sammy replied with an unanswerable argument; "Look a here, Mandy Ford; you jest tell me, would a low down revenue ask a blessin' like Parson Bigelow does?"

At this Mandy gave up the case, saying in despair, "Well, what is he a doin' here then? 'Tain't likely he's done come into th' woods fer nothin'."

"He told Old Matt that he was sick and tired of it all," answered the other.

"Did he look like he was ailin'?"

Sammy replied slowly, "I don't reckon it's that kind of sickness he meant; and when you look right close into his eyes, he does 'pear kind o' used up like."

In connection with this discussion, it was easy to speak of Miss Lane's fairy prospects, for, was not the stranger from the city? and was not Sammy going to live in that land of wonders? The two girls were preparing for the night, when Sammy, who was seated on the edge of the bed, paused, with one shoe off, to ask thoughtfully, "Mandy, what is love, anyhow?"

Mandy looked surprised. "I reckon you ought to know," she said with a laugh; "Ollie's been a hangin' 'round you ever since I can remember."

Sammy was struggling with a knot in the other shoe lace; "Yes," she admitted slowly; "I reckon I had ought to know; but what do you say it is, Mandy?"

"Why, hit's--hit's--jest a caring fer somebody more'n fer ary one else in th' whole world."

"Is that all?" The knot was still stubborn.

"No, hit ain't all. Hit's a goin' t' live with somebody an' a lettin' him take care o' you, 'stead o' your folks." Sammy was still struggling with the knot. "An' hit's a cookin' an' a scrubbin' an' a mendin' fer him, an'--an'--sometimes hit's a splittin' wood, an' a doin' chores, too; an' I reckon that's all."

Just here the knot came undone, and the shoe dropped to the floor with a thud. Sammy sat upright. "No, it ain't, Mandy; it's a heap more'n that; it's a nursin' babies, and a takin' care of 'em 'till they're growed up, and then when they're big enough to take care o' themselves, and you're old and in the way, like Grandma Bowles, it's a lookin' back over it all, and bein' glad you done married the man you did. It's a heap more'n livin' with a man, Mandy; it's a doin' all that, without ever once wishin' he was somebody else."

This was too much for Mandy; she blushed and giggled, then remarked, as she gazed admiringly at her friend, "You'll look mighty fine, Sammy, when you get fixed up with all them pretties you'll have when you an' Ollie git married. I wish my hair was bright an' shiny like yourn. How do you reckon you'll like bein' a fine lady anyhow?"

Here it was again. Sammy turned upon her helpless friend, with, "How do I know if I would like it or not? What is bein' a fine lady, anyhow?"

"Why, bein' a fine lady is--is livin' in a big house with carpets on th' floor, an' lookin' glasses, an' not havin' no work t' do, an' wearin' pretty clothes, with lots of rings an' things, an'-- an'," she paused; then finished in triumph, "an' a ridin' in a carriage."

That wide questioning look was in Sammy's eyes as she returned, "It's a heap more'n that, Mandy. I don't jest sense what it is, but I know 'tain't all them things that makes a sure 'nough lady. 'Tain't the clothes he wears that makes Mr. Howitt different from the folks we know. He don't wear no rings, and he walks. He's jest different 'cause he's different; and would be, no matter what he had on or where he was."

This, too, was beyond Mandy. Sammy continued, as she finished her preparations for retiring; "This here house is plenty big enough for me, least wise it would be if it had one more room like the cabin in Mutton Hollow; carpets would be mighty dirty and unhandy to clean when the men folks come trampin' in with their muddy boots; I wouldn't want to wear no dresses so fine I couldn't knock 'round in the brush with them; and it would be awful to have nothin' to do; as for a carriage, I wouldn't swap Brownie for a whole city full of carriages." She slipped into bed and stretched out luxuriously. "Do you reckon I could be a fine lady, and be as I am now, a livin' here in the hills?"

The next day Mandy went back to her home on Jake Creek. And in the evening Sammy's father, with Wash Gibbs, returned, both men and horses showing the effects of a long, hard ride.