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Taking the Blue Ribbon at the County Fair by Charles Egbert Craddock

 

Jenks Hollis sat on the fence. He slowly turned the quid of tobacco in his cheek, and lifting up his voice spoke with an oracular drawl:—

“Ef he kin take the certif'cate it's the mos' ez he kin do. He ain't never a-goin' ter git no premi-um in this life, sure 's ye air a born sinner.”

And he relapsed into silence. His long legs dangled dejectedly among the roadside weeds; his brown jeans trousers, that had despaired of ever reaching his ankles, were ornamented here and there with ill-adjusted patches, and his loose-fitting coat was out at the elbows. An old white wool hat drooped over his eyes, which were fixed absently on certain distant blue mountain ranges, that melted tenderly into the blue of the noonday sky, and framed an exquisite mosaic of poly-tinted fields in the valley, far, far below the grim gray crag on which his little home was perched.

Despite his long legs he was a light weight, or he would not have chosen as his favorite seat so rickety a fence. His interlocutor, a heavier man, apparently had some doubts, for he leaned only slightly against one of the projecting rails as he whittled a pine stick, and with his every movement the frail structure trembled. The log cabin seemed as rickety as the fence. The little front porch had lost a puncheon here and there in the flooring—perhaps on some cold winter night when Hollis's energy was not sufficiently exuberant to convey him to the wood-pile; the slender posts that upheld its roof seemed hardly strong enough to withstand the weight of the luxuriant vines with their wealth of golden gourds which had clambered far over the moss-grown clapboards; the windows had fewer panes of glass than rags; and the chimney, built of clay and sticks, leaned portentously away from the house. The open door displayed a rough, uncovered floor; a few old rush-bottomed chairs; a bedstead with a patch-work calico quilt, the mattress swagging in the centre and showing the badly arranged cords below; strings of bright red pepper hanging from the dark rafters; a group of tow-headed, grave-faced, barefooted children; and, occupying almost one side of the room, a broad, deep, old-fashioned fireplace, where winter and summer a lazy fire burned under a lazy pot.

Notwithstanding the poverty of the aspect of the place and the evident sloth of its master, it was characterized by a scrupulous cleanliness strangely at variance with its forlorn deficiencies. The rough floor was not only swept but scoured; the dark rafters, whence depended the flaming banners of the red pepper, harbored no cobwebs; the grave faces of the white-haired children bore no more dirt than was consistent with their recent occupation of making mudpies; and the sedate, bald-headed baby, lying silent but wide-awake in an uncouth wooden cradle, was as clean as clear spring water and yellow soap could make it. Mrs. Hollis herself, seen through the vista of opposite open doors, energetically rubbing the coarse wet clothes upon the resonant washboard, seemed neat enough in her blue-and-white checked homespun dress, and with her scanty hair drawn smoothly back from her brow into a tidy little knot on the top of her head.

Spare and gaunt she was, and with many lines in her prematurely old face. Perhaps they told of the hard fight her brave spirit waged against the stern ordering of her life; of the struggles with squalor,—inevitable concomitant of poverty,—and to keep together the souls and bodies of those numerous children, with no more efficient assistance than could be wrung from her reluctant husband in the short intervals when he did not sit on the fence. She managed as well as she could; there was an abundance of fine fruit in that low line of foliage behind the house—but everybody on Old Bear Mountain had fine fruit. Something rarer, she had good vegetables—the planting and hoeing being her own work and her eldest daughter's; an occasional shallow furrow representing the contribution of her husband's plough. The althea-bushes and the branches of the laurel sheltered a goodly number of roosting hens in these September nights; and to the pond, which had been formed by damming the waters of the spring branch in the hollow across the road, was moving even now a stately procession of geese in single file. These simple belongings were the trophies of a gallant battle against unalterable conditions and the dragging, dispiriting clog of her husband's inertia.

His inner life—does it seem hard to realize that in that uncouth personality concentred the complex, incomprehensible, ever-shifting emotions of that inner life which, after all, is so much stronger, and deeper, and broader than the material? Here, too, beat the hot heart of humanity—beat with no measured throb. He had his hopes, his pleasure, his pain, like those of a higher culture, differing only in object, and something perhaps in degree. His disappointments were bitter and lasting; his triumphs, few and sordid; his single aspiration—to take the premium offered by the directors of the Kildeer County Fair for the best equestrian.

This incongruous and unpromising ambition had sprung up in this wise: Between the country people of Kildeer County and the citizens of the village of Colbury, the county-seat, existed a bitter and deeply rooted animosity manifesting itself at conventions, elections for the legislature, etc., the rural population voting as a unit against the town's candidate. On all occasions of public meetings there was a struggle to crush any invidious distinction against the “country boys,” especially at the annual fair. Here to the rustics of Kildeer County came the tug of war. The population of the outlying districts was more numerous, and, when it could be used as a suffrage-engine, all-powerful; but the region immediately adjacent to the town was far more fertile. On those fine meadows grazed the graceful Jersey; there gamboled sundry long-tailed colts with long-tailed pedigrees; there greedy Berkshires fattened themselves to abnormal proportions; and the merinos could hardly walk, for the weight of their own rich wardrobes. The well-to-do farmers of this section were hand-in-glove with the town's people; they drove their trotters in every day or so to get their mail, to chat with their cronies, to attend to their affairs in court, to sell or to buy—their pleasures centred in the town, and they turned the cold shoulder upon the country, which supported them, and gave their influence to Colbury, accounting themselves an integrant part of it. Thus, at the fairs the town claimed the honor and glory. The blue ribbon decorated cattle and horses bred within ten miles of the flaunting flag on the judges' stand, and the foaming mountain-torrents and the placid stream in the valley beheld no cerulean hues save those of the sky which they reflected.

The premium offered this year for the best rider was, as it happened, a new feature, and excited especial interest. The country's blood was up. Here was something for which it could fairly compete, with none of the disadvantages of the false position in which it was placed. Hence a prosperous landed proprietor, the leader of the rural faction, dwelling midway between the town and the range of mountains that bounded the county on the north and east, bethought himself one day of Jenkins Hollis, whose famous riding had been the feature of a certain dashing cavalry charge—once famous, too—forgotten now by all but the men who, for the first and only time in their existence, penetrated in those war days the blue mountains fencing in their county from the outer world, and looked upon the alien life beyond that wooded barrier. The experience of those four years, submerged in the whirling rush of events elsewhere, survives in these eventless regions in a dreamy, dispassionate sort of longevity. And Jenkins Hollis's feat of riding stolidly—one could hardly say bravely—up an almost sheer precipice to a flame-belching battery came suddenly into the landed magnate's recollection with the gentle vapors and soothing aroma of a meditative after-dinner pipe. Quivering with party spirit, Squire Goodlet sent for Hollis and offered to lend him the best horse on the place, and a saddle and bridle, if he would go down to Colbury and beat those town fellows out on their own ground.

No misgivings had Hollis. The inordinate personal pride characteristic of the mountaineer precluded his feeling a shrinking pain at the prospect of being presented, a sorry contrast, among the well-clad, well-to-do town's people, to compete in a public contest. He did not appreciate the difference—he thought himself as good as the best.

And to-day, complacent enough, he sat upon the rickety fence at home, oracularly disparaging the equestrian accomplishments of the town's noted champion.

“I dunno—I dunno,” said his young companion doubtfully. “Hackett sets mighty firm onto his saddle. He's ez straight ez any shingle, an' ez tough ez a pine-knot. He come up hyar las' summer—war it las' summer, now? No, 't war summer afore las'—with some o' them other Colbury folks, a-fox-huntin', an' a-deer-huntin, an' one thing an' 'nother. I seen 'em a time or two in the woods. An' he kin ride jes' ez good 'mongst the gullies and boulders like ez ef he had been born in the hills. He ain't a-goin' ter be beat easy.”

“It don't make no differ,” retorted Jenks Hollis. “He'll never git no premi-um. The certif'cate's good a-plenty fur what ridin' he kin do.”

Doubt was still expressed in the face of the young man, but he said no more, and, after a short silence, Mr. Hollis, perhaps not relishing his visitor's want of appreciation, dismounted, so to speak, from the fence, and slouched off slowly up the road.

Jacob Brice still stood leaning against the rails and whittling his pine stick, in no wise angered or dismayed by his host's unceremonious departure, for social etiquette is not very rigid on Old Bear Mountain. He was a tall athletic fellow, clad in a suit of brown jeans, which displayed, besides the ornaments of patches, sundry deep grass stains about the knees. Not that piety induced Brice to spend much time in the lowly attitude of prayer, unless, indeed, Diana might be accounted the goddess of his worship. The green juice was pressed out when kneeling, hidden in some leafy, grassy nook, he heard the infrequent cry of the wild turkey, or his large, intent blue eyes caught a glimpse of the stately head of an antlered buck, moving majestically in the alternate sheen of the sunlight and shadow of the overhanging crags; or while with his deft hunter's hands he dragged himself by slow, noiseless degrees through the ferns and tufts of rank weeds to the water's edge, that he might catch a shot at the feeding wild duck. A leather belt around his waist supported his powder-horn and shot-pouch,—for his accoutrements were exactly such as might have been borne a hundred years ago by a hunter of Old Bear Mountain,—and his gun leaned against the trunk of a chestnut-oak.

Although he still stood outside the fence, aimlessly lounging, there was a look on his face of a half-suppressed expectancy, which rendered the features less statuesque than was their wont—an expectancy that showed itself in the furtive lifting of his eyelids now and then, enabling him to survey the doorway without turning his head. Suddenly his face reassumed its habitual, inexpressive mask of immobility, and the furtive eyes were persistently downcast.

A flare of color, and Cynthia Hollis was standing in the doorway, leaning against its frame. She was robed, like September, in brilliant yellow. The material and make were of the meanest, but there was a certain appropriateness in the color with her slumberous dark eyes and the curling tendrils of brown hair which fell upon her forehead and were clustered together at the back of her neck. No cuffs and no collar could this costume boast, but she had shown the inclination to finery characteristic of her age and sex by wearing around her throat, where the yellow hue of her dress met the creamy tint of her skin, a row of large black beads, threaded upon a shoe-string in default of an elastic, the brass ends flaunting brazenly enough among them. She held in her hand a string of red pepper, to which she was adding some newly gathered pods. A slow job Cynthia seemed to make of it.

She took no more notice of the man under the tree than he accorded to her. There they stood, within twelve feet of each other, in utter silence, and, to all appearance, each entirely unconscious of the other's existence: he whittling his pine stick; she, slowly, slowly stringing the pods of red pepper.

There was something almost portentous in the gravity and sobriety of demeanor of this girl of seventeen; she manifested less interest in the young man than her own grandmother might have shown.

He was constrained to speak first. “Cynthy”—he said at length, without raising his eyes or turning his head. She did not answer; but he knew without looking that she had fixed those slumberous brown eyes upon him, waiting for him to go on. “Cynthy”—he said again, with a hesitating, uneasy manner. Then, with an awkward attempt at raillery, “Ain't ye never a-thinkin' 'bout a-gittin' married?”

He cast a laughing glance toward her, and looked down quickly at his clasp-knife and the stick he was whittling. It was growing very slender now.

Cynthia's serious face relaxed its gravity. “Ye air foolish, Jacob,” she said, laughing. After stringing on another pepper-pod with great deliberation, she continued: “Ef I war a-studyin' 'bout a-gittin' married, thar ain't nobody round 'bout hyar ez I'd hev.” And she added another pod to the flaming red string, so bright against the yellow of her dress.

That stick could not long escape annihilation. The clasp-knife moved vigorously through its fibres, and accented certain arbitrary clauses in its owner's retort. “Ye talk like,” he said, his face as monotonous in its expression as if every line were cut in marble—“ye talk like—ye thought ez how I—war a-goin' ter ax ye—ter marry me. I ain't though, nuther.”

The stick was a shaving. It fell among the weeds. The young hunter shut his clasp-knife with a snap, shouldered his gun, and without a word of adieu on either side the conference terminated, and he walked off down the sandy road.

Cynthia stood watching him until the laurel-bushes hid him from sight; then sliding from the door-frame to the step, she sat motionless, a bright-hued mass of yellow draperies and red peppers, her slumberous deep eyes resting on the leaves that had closed upon him.

She was the central figure of a still landscape. The mid-day sunshine fell in broad effulgence upon it; the homely, dun-colored shadows had been running away all the morning, as if shirking the contrast with the splendors of the golden light, until nothing was left of them except a dark circle beneath the wide-spreading trees. No breath of wind stirred the leaves, or rippled the surface of the little pond. The lethargy of the hour had descended even upon the towering pine-trees, growing on the precipitous slope of the mountain, and showing their topmost plumes just above the frowning, gray crag—their melancholy song was hushed. The silent masses of dazzling white clouds were poised motionless in the ambient air, high above the valley and the misty expanse of the distant, wooded ranges.

A lazy, lazy day, and very, very warm. The birds had much ado to find sheltering shady nooks where they might escape the glare and the heat; their gay carols were out of season, and they blinked and nodded under their leafy umbrellas, and fanned themselves with their wings, and twittered disapproval of the weather. “Hot, hot, red-hot!” said the birds—“broiling hot!”

Now and then an acorn fell from among the serrated chestnut leaves, striking upon the fence with a sounding thwack, and rebounding in the weeds. Those chestnut-oaks always seem to unaccustomed eyes the creation of Nature in a fit of mental aberration—useful freak! the mountain swine fatten on the plenteous mast, and the bark is highly esteemed at the tan-yard.

A large cat was lying at full length on the floor of the little porch, watching with drowsy, half-closed eyes the assembled birds in the tree. But she seemed to have relinquished the pleasures of the chase until the mercury should fall.

Close in to the muddiest side of the pond over there, which was all silver and blue with the reflection of the great masses of white clouds, and the deep azure sky, a fleet of shining, snowy geese was moored, perfectly motionless too. No circumnavigation for them this hot day.

And Cynthia's dark brown eyes, fixed upon the leafy vista of the road, were as slumberous as the noontide sunshine.

“Cynthy! whar is the gal?” said poor Mrs. Hollis, as she came around the house to hang out the ragged clothes on the althea-bushes and the rickety fence. “Cynthy, air ye a-goin' ter sit thar in the door all day, an' that thar pot a-bilin' all the stren'th out 'n that thar cabbige an' roas'in'-ears? Dish up dinner, child, an' don't be so slow an' slack-twisted like yer dad.”

       * * * * *

Great merriment there was, to be sure, at the Kildeer Fair grounds, situated on the outskirts of Colbury, when it became known to the convulsed town faction that the gawky Jenks Hollis intended to compete for the premium to be awarded to the best and most graceful rider. The contests of the week had as usual resulted in Colbury's favor; this was the last day of the fair, and the defeated country population anxiously but still hopefully awaited its notable event.

A warm sun shone; a brisk autumnal breeze waved the flag flying from the judges' stand; a brass band in the upper story of that structure thrilled the air with the vibrations of popular waltzes and marches, somewhat marred now and then by mysteriously discordant bass tones; the judges, portly, red-faced, middle-aged gentlemen, sat below in cane-bottom chairs critically a-tilt on the hind legs. The rough wooden amphitheatre, a bold satire on the stately Roman edifice, was filled with the denizens of Colbury and the rosy rural faces of the country people of Kildeer County; and within the charmed arena the competitors for the blue ribbon and the saddle and bridle to be awarded to the best rider were just now entering, ready mounted, from a door beneath the tiers of seats, and were slowly making the tour of the circle around the judges' stand. One by one they came, with a certain nonchalant pride of demeanor, conscious of an effort to display themselves and their horses to the greatest advantage, and yet a little ashamed of the consciousness. For the most part they were young men, prosperous looking, and clad according to the requirements of fashion which prevailed in this little town. Shut in though it was from the pomps and vanities of the world by the encircling chains of blue ranges and the bending sky which rested upon their summits, the frivolity of the mode, though somewhat belated, found its way and ruled with imperative rigor. Good riders they were undoubtedly, accustomed to the saddle almost from infancy, and well mounted. A certain air of gallantry, always characteristic of an athletic horseman, commended these equestrian figures to the eye as they slowly circled about. Still they came—eight—nine—ten—the eleventh, the long, lank frame of Jenkins Hollis mounted on Squire Goodlet's “John Barleycorn.”

The horsemen received this ungainly addition to their party with polite composure, and the genteel element of the spectators remained silent too from the force of good breeding and good feeling; but the “roughs,” always critically a-loose in a crowd, shouted and screamed with derisive hilarity. What they were laughing at Jenks Hollis never knew. Grave and stolid, but as complacent as the best, he too made the usual circuit with his ill-fitting jeans suit, his slouching old wool hat, and his long, gaunt figure. But he sat the spirited “John Barleycorn” as if he were a part of the steed, and held up his head with unwonted dignity, inspired perhaps by the stately attitudes of the horse, which were the result of no training nor compelling reins, but the instinct transmitted through a long line of high-headed ancestry. Of a fine old family was “John Barleycorn.”

A deeper sensation was in store for the spectators. Before Jenkins Hollis's appearance most of them had heard of his intention to compete, but the feeling was one of unmixed astonishment when entry No. 12 rode into the arena, and, on the part of the country people, this surprise was supplemented by an intense indignation. The twelfth man was Jacob Brice. As he was a “mounting boy,” one would imagine that, if victory should crown his efforts, the rural faction ought to feel the elation of success, but the prevailing sentiment toward him was that which every well-conducted mind must entertain concerning the individual who runs against the nominee. Notwithstanding the fact that Brice was a notable rider, too, and well calculated to try the mettle of the town's champion, there arose from the excited countrymen a keen, bitter, and outraged cry of “Take him out!” So strongly does the partisan heart pulsate to the interests of the nominee! This frantic petition had no effect on the interloper. A man who has inherited half a dozen violent quarrels, any one of which may at any moment burst into a vendetta,—inheriting little else,—is not easily dismayed by the disapprobation of either friend or foe. His statuesque features, shaded by the drooping brim of his old black hat were as calm as ever, and his slow blue eyes did not, for one moment, rest upon the excited scene about him, so unspeakably new to his scanty experience. His fine figure showed to great advantage on horseback, despite his uncouth, coarse garb; he was mounted upon a sturdy, brown mare of obscure origin, but good-looking, clean-built, sure-footed, and with the blended charm of spirit and docility; she represented his whole estate, except his gun and his lean, old hound, that had accompanied him to the fair, and was even now improving the shining hour by quarreling over a bone outside the grounds with other people's handsomer dogs.

The judges were exacting. The riders were ordered to gallop to the right—and around they went. To the left—and there was again the spectacle of the swiftly circling equestrian figures. They were required to draw up in a line, and to dismount; then to mount, and again to alight. Those whom these manoeuvres proved inferior were dismissed at once, and the circle was reduced to eight. An exchange of horses was commanded; and once more the riding, fast and slow, left and right, the mounting and dismounting were repeated. The proficiency of the remaining candidates rendered them worthy of more difficult ordeals. They were required to snatch a hat from the ground while riding at full gallop. Pistols loaded with blank cartridges were fired behind the horses, and subsequently close to their quivering and snorting nostrils, in order that the relative capacity of the riders to manage a frightened and unruly steed might be compared, and the criticism of the judges mowed the number down to four.

Free speech is conceded by all right-thinking people to be a blessing. It is often a balm. Outside of the building and of earshot the defeated aspirants took what comfort they could in consigning, with great fervor and volubility, all the judicial magnates to that torrid region unknown to polite geographical works.

Of the four horsemen remaining in the ring, two were Jenkins Hollis and Jacob Brice. Short turns at full gallop were prescribed. The horses were required to go backward at various gaits. Bars were brought in and the crowd enjoyed the exhibition of the standing-leap, at an ever-increasing height and then the flying-leap—a tumultuous confused impression of thundering hoofs and tossing mane and grim defiant faces of horse and rider, in the lightning-like moment of passing. Obstructions were piled on the track for the “long jumps,” and in one of the wildest leaps a good rider was unhorsed and rolled on the ground while his recreant steed that had balked at the last moment scampered around and around the arena in a wild effort to find the door beneath the tiers of seats to escape so fierce a competition. This accident reduced the number of candidates to the two mountaineers and Tip Hackett, the man whom Jacob had pronounced a formidable rival. The circling about, the mounting and dismounting, the exchange of horses were several times repeated without any apparent result, and excitement rose to fever heat.

The premium and certificate lay between the three men. The town faction trembled at the thought that the substantial award of the saddle and bridle, with the decoration of the blue ribbon, and the intangible but still precious secondary glory of the certificate and the red ribbon might be given to the two mountaineers, leaving the crack rider of Colbury in an ignominious lurch; while the country party feared Hollis's defeat by Hackett rather less than that Jenks would be required to relinquish the premium to the interloper Brice, for the young hunter's riding had stricken a pang of prophetic terror to more than one partisan rustic's heart. In the midst of the perplexing doubt, which tried the judges' minds, came the hour for dinner, and the decision was postponed until after that meal.

The competitors left the arena, and the spectators transferred their attention to unburdening hampers, or to jostling one another in the dining-hall.

Everybody was feasting but Cynthia Hollis. The intense excitement of the day, the novel sights and sounds utterly undreamed of in her former life, the abruptly struck chords of new emotions suddenly set vibrating within her, had dulled her relish for the midday meal; and while the other members of the family repaired to the shade of a tree outside the grounds to enjoy that refection, she wandered about the “floral hall,” gazing at the splendors of bloom thronging there, all so different from the shy grace, the fragility of poise, the delicacy of texture of the flowers of her ken,—the rhododendron, the azalea, the Chilhowee lily,—yet vastly imposing in their massed exuberance and scarlet pride, for somehow they all seemed high colored.

She went more than once to note with a kind of aghast dismay those trophies of feminine industry, the quilts; some were of the “log cabin” and “rising sun” variety, but others were of geometric intricacy of form and were kaleidoscopic of color with an amazing labyrinth of stitchings and embroideries—it seemed a species of effrontery to dub one gorgeous poly-tinted silken banner a quilt. But already it bore a blue ribbon, and its owner was the richer by the prize of a glass bowl and the envy of a score of deft-handed competitors. She gazed upon the glittering jellies and preserves, upon the biscuits and cheeses, the hair-work and wax flowers, and paintings. These latter treated for the most part of castles and seas rather than of the surrounding altitudes, but Cynthia came to a pause of blank surprise in front of a shadow rather than a picture which represented a spring of still brown water in a mossy cleft of a rock where the fronds of a fern seemed to stir in the foreground. “I hev viewed the like o' that a many a time,” she said disparagingly. To her it hardly seemed rare enough for the blue ribbon on the frame.

In the next room she dawdled through great piles of prize fruits and vegetables—water-melons unduly vast of bulk, peaches and pears and pumpkins of proportions never seen before out of a nightmare, stalks of Indian corn eighteen feet high with seven ears each,—all apparently attesting what they could do when they would, and that all the enterprise of Kildeer County was not exclusively of the feminine persuasion.

Finally Cynthia came out from the midst of them and stood leaning against one of the large pillars which supported the roof of the amphitheatre, still gazing about the half-deserted building, with the smouldering fires of her slumberous eyes newly kindled.

To other eyes and ears it might not have seemed a scene of tumultuous metropolitan life, with the murmuring trees close at hand dappling the floor with sycamore shadows, the fields of Indian corn across the road, the exuberant rush of the stream down the slope just beyond, the few hundred spectators who had intently watched the events of the day; but to Cynthia Hollis the excitement of the crowd and movement and noise could no further go.

By the natural force of gravitation Jacob Brice presently was walking slowly and apparently aimlessly around to where she was standing. He said nothing, however, when he was beside her, and she seemed entirely unconscious of his presence. Her yellow dress was as stiff as a board, and as clean as her strong, young arms could make it; at her throat were the shining black beads; on her head she wore a limp, yellow calico sunbonnet, which hung down over her eyes, and almost obscured her countenance. To this article she perhaps owed the singular purity and transparency of her complexion, as much as to the mountain air, and the chiefly vegetable fare of her father's table. She wore it constantly, although it operated almost as a mask, rendering her more easily recognizable to their few neighbors by her flaring attire than by her features, and obstructing from her own view all surrounding scenery, so that she could hardly see the cow, which so much of her time she was slowly poking after.

She spoke unexpectedly, and without any other symptom that she knew of the young hunter's proximity. “I never thought, Jacob, ez how ye would hev come down hyar, all the way from the mountings, to ride agin my dad, an' beat him out'n that thar saddle an' bridle.”

“Ye won't hev nothin' ter say ter me,” retorted Jacob sourly.

A long silence ensued.

Then he resumed didactically, but with some irrelevancy, “I tole ye t'other day ez how ye war old enough ter be a-studyin' 'bout gittin' married.”

“They don't think nothin' of ye ter our house, Jacob. Dad 's always a-jowin' at ye.” Cynthia's candor certainly could not be called in question.

The young hunter replied with some natural irritation: “He hed better not let me hear him, ef he wants to keep whole bones inside his skin. He better not tell me, nuther.”

“He don't keer enough 'bout ye, Jacob, ter tell ye. He don't think nothin' of ye.”

Love is popularly supposed to dull the mental faculties. It developed in Jacob Brice sudden strategic abilities.

“Thar is them ez does,” he said diplomatically.

Cynthia spoke promptly with more vivacity than usual, but in her customary drawl and apparently utterly irrelevantly:—

“I never in all my days see no sech red-headed gal ez that thar Becky Stiles. She's the red-headedest gal ever I see.” And Cynthia once more was silent.

Jacob resumed, also irrelevantly:—

“When I goes a-huntin' up yander ter Pine Lick, they is mighty perlite ter me. They ain't never done nothin' agin me, ez I knows on.” Then, after a pause of deep cogitation, he added, “Nor hev they said nothin' agin me, nuther.”

Cynthia took up her side of the dialogue, if dialogue it could be called, with wonted irrelevancy: “That thar Becky Stiles, she's got the freckledest face—ez freckled ez any turkey-aig” (with an indescribable drawl on the last word).

“They ain't done nothin' agin me,” reiterated Jacob astutely, “nor said nothin' nuther—none of 'em.”

Cynthia looked hard across the amphitheatre at the distant Great Smoky Mountains shimmering in the hazy September sunlight—so ineffably beautiful, so delicately blue, that they might have seemed the ideal scenery of some impossibly lovely ideal world. Perhaps she was wondering what the unconscious Becky Stiles, far away in those dark woods about Pine Lick, had secured in this life besides her freckled face. Was this the sylvan deity of the young hunter's adoration?

Cynthia took off her sunbonnet to use it for a fan. Perhaps it was well for her that she did so at this moment; it had so entirely concealed her head that her hair might have been the color of Becky Stiles's, and no one the wiser. The dark brown tendrils curled delicately on her creamy forehead; the excitement of the day had flushed her pale cheeks with an unwonted glow; her eyes were alight with their newly kindled fires; the clinging curtain of her bonnet had concealed the sloping curves of her shoulders—altogether she was attractive enough, despite the flare of her yellow dress, and especially attractive to the untutored eyes of Jacob Brice. He relented suddenly, and lost all the advantages of his tact and diplomacy.

“I likes ye better nor I does Becky Stiles,” he said moderately. Then with more fervor, “I likes ye better nor any gal I ever see.”

The usual long pause ensued.

“Ye hev got a mighty cur'ous way o' showin' it,” Cynthia replied.

“I dunno what ye 're talkin' 'bout, Cynthy.”

“Ye hev got a mighty cur'ous way o' showin' it,” she reiterated, with renewed animation—“a-comin' all the way down hyar from the mountings ter beat my dad out'n that thar saddle an' bridle, what he's done sot his heart onto. Mighty cur'ous way.”

“Look hyar, Cynthy.” The young hunter broke off suddenly, and did not speak again for several minutes. A great perplexity was surging this way and that in his slow brains—a great struggle was waging in his heart. He was to choose between love and ambition—nay, avarice too was ranged beside his aspiration. He felt himself an assured victor in the competition, and he had seen that saddle and bridle. They were on exhibition to-day, and to him their material and workmanship seemed beyond expression wonderful, and elegant, and substantial. He could never hope otherwise to own such accoutrements. His eyes would never again even rest upon such resplendent objects, unless indeed in Hollis's possession. Any one who has ever loved a horse can appreciate a horseman's dear desire that beauty should go beautifully caparisoned. And then, there was his pride in his own riding, and his anxiety to have his preeminence in that accomplishment acknowledged and recognized by his friends, and, dearer triumph still, by his enemies. A terrible pang before he spoke again.

“Look hyar, Cynthy,” he said at last; “ef ye will marry me, I won't go back in yander no more. I'll leave the premi-um ter them ez kin git it.”

“Ye're foolish, Jacob,” she replied, still fanning with the yellow calico sunbonnet. “Ain't I done tole ye, ez how they don't think nothin' of ye ter our house? I don't want all of 'em a-jowin' at me, too.”

“Ye talk like ye ain't got good sense, Cynthy,” said Jacob irritably. “What's ter hender me from hitchin' up my mare ter my uncle's wagon an' ye an' me a-drivin' up hyar to the Cross-Roads, fifteen mile, and git Pa'son Jones ter marry us? We'll get the license down hyar ter the Court House afore we start. An' while they'll all be a-foolin' away thar time a-ridin' round that thar ring, ye an' me will be a-gittin' married.” Ten minutes ago Jacob Brice did not think riding around that ring was such a reprehensible waste of time. “What's ter hender? It don't make no differ how they jow then.”

“I done tole ye, Jacob,” said the sedate Cynthia, still fanning with the sunbonnet.

With a sudden return of his inspiration, Jacob retorted, affecting an air of stolid indifference: “Jes' ez ye choose. I won't hev ter ax Becky Stiles twict.”

And he turned to go.

“I never said no, Jacob,” said Cynthia precipitately. “I never said ez how I wouldn't hev ye.”

“Waal, then, jes' come along with me right now while I hitch up the mare. I ain't a-goin' ter leave yer a-standin' hyar. Ye're too skittish. Time I come back ye'd hev done run away I dunno whar.” A moment's pause and he added: “Is ye a-goin' ter stand thar all day, Cynthy Hollis, a-lookin' up an' around, and a-turnin' yer neck fust this way and then t'other, an' a-lookin' fur all the worl' like a wild turkey in a trap, or one o' them thar skeery young deer, or sech senseless critters? What ails the gal?”

“Thar'll be nobody ter help along the work ter our house,” said Cynthia, the weight of the home difficulties bearing heavily on her conscience.

“What's ter hender ye from a-goin' down thar an' lendin' a hand every wunst in a while? But ef ye're a-goin' ter stand thar like ye hedn't no more action than a—a-dunno-what,—jes' like yer dad, I ain't. I'll jes' leave ye a-growed ter that thar post, an' I'll jes' light out stiddier, an' afore the cows git ter Pine Lick, I'll be thar too. Jes' ez ye choose. Come along ef ye wants ter come. I ain't a-goin' ter ax ye no more.”

“I'm a-comin',” said Cynthia.

There was great though illogical rejoicing on the part of the country faction when the crowds were again seated, tier above tier, in the amphitheatre, and the riders were once more summoned into the arena, to discover from Jacob Brice's unaccounted-for absence that he had withdrawn and left the nominee to his chances.

In the ensuing competition it became very evident to the not altogether impartially disposed judges that they could not, without incurring the suspicions alike of friend and foe, award the premium to their fellow-townsman. Straight as a shingle though he might be, more prepossessing to the eye, the ex-cavalryman of fifty battles was far better trained in all the arts of horsemanship.

A wild shout of joy burst from the rural party when the most portly and rubicund of the portly and red-faced judges advanced into the ring and decorated Jenkins Hollis with the blue ribbon. A frantic antistrophe rent the air. “Take it off!” vociferated the bitter town faction—“take it off!”

A diversion was produced by the refusal of the Colbury champion to receive the empty honor of the red ribbon and the certificate. Thus did he except to the ruling of the judges. In high dudgeon he faced about and left the arena, followed shortly by the decorated Jenks, bearing the precious saddle and bridle, and going with a wooden face to receive the congratulations of his friends.

The entries for the slow mule race had been withdrawn at the last moment; and the spectators, balked of that unique sport, and the fair being virtually over, were rising from their seats and making their noisy preparations for departure. Before Jenks had cleared the fair-building, being somewhat impeded by the moving mass of humanity, he encountered one of his neighbors, a listless mountaineer, who spoke on this wise:—

“Does ye know that thar gal o' yourn—that thar Cynthy?”

Mr. Hollis nodded his expressionless head—presumably he did know Cynthia.

“Waal,” continued his leisurely interlocutor, still interrogative, “does ye know Jacob Brice?”

Ill-starred association of ideas! There was a look of apprehension on Jenkins Hollis's wooden face.

“They hev done got a license down hyar ter the Court House an' gone a-kitin' out on the Old B'ar road.”

This was explicit.

“Whar's my horse?” exclaimed Jenks, appropriating “John Barleycorn” in his haste. Great as was his hurry, it was not too imperative to prevent him from strapping upon the horse the premium saddle, and inserting in his mouth the new bit and bridle. And in less than ten minutes a goodly number of recruits from the crowd assembled in Colbury were also “a-kitin'“ out on the road to Old Bear, delighted with a new excitement, and bent on running down the eloping couple with no more appreciation of the sentimental phase of the question and the tender illusions of love's young dream than if Jacob and Cynthia were two mountain foxes.

Down the red-clay slopes of the outskirts of the town “John Barleycorn” thunders with a train of horsemen at his heels. Splash into the clear fair stream whose translucent depths tell of its birthplace among the mountain springs—how the silver spray showers about as the pursuers surge through the ford leaving behind them a foamy wake!—and now they are pressing hard up the steep ascent of the opposite bank, and galloping furiously along a level stretch of road, with the fences and trees whirling by, and the September landscape flying on the wings of the wind. The chase leads past fields of tasseled Indian corn, with yellowing thickly swathed ears, leaning heavily from the stalk; past wheat-lands, the crops harvested and the crab-grass having its day at last; past “woods-lots” and their black shadows, and out again into the September sunshine; past rickety little homes, not unlike Hollis's own, with tow-headed children, exactly like his, standing with wide eyes, looking at the rush and hurry of the pursuit—sometimes in the ill-kept yards a wood-fire is burning under the boiling sorghum kettle, or beneath the branches of the orchard near at hand a cider-mill is crushing the juice out of the red and yellow, ripe and luscious apples. Homeward-bound prize cattle are overtaken—a Durham bull, reluctantly permitting himself to be led into a fence corner that the hunt may sweep by unobstructed, and turning his proud blue-ribboned head angrily toward the riders as if indignant that anything except him should absorb attention; a gallant horse, with another floating blue streamer, bearing himself as becometh a king's son; the chase comes near to crushing sundry grunting porkers impervious to pride and glory in any worldly distinctions of cerulean decorations, and at last is fain to draw up and wait until a flock of silly over-dressed sheep, running in frantic fear every way but the right way, can be gathered together and guided to a place of safety.

And once more, forward; past white frame houses with porches, and vine-grown verandas, and well-tended gardens, and groves of oak and beech and hickory trees—“John Barleycorn” makes an ineffectual but gallant struggle to get in at the large white gate of one of these comfortable places, Squire Goodlet's home, but he is urged back into the road, and again the pursuit sweeps on. Those blue mountains, the long parallel ranges of Old Bear and his brothers, seem no more a misty, uncertain mirage against the delicious indefinable tints of the horizon. Sharply outlined they are now, with dark, irregular shadows upon their precipitous slopes which tell of wild ravines, and rock-lined gorges, and swirling mountain torrents, and great, beetling, gray crags. A breath of balsams comes on the freshening wind—the lungs expand to meet it. There is a new aspect in the scene; a revivifying current thrills through the blood; a sudden ideal beauty descends on prosaic creation.

“'Pears like I can't git my breath good in them flat countries,” says Jenkins Hollis to himself, as “John Barleycorn” improves his speed under the exhilarating influence of the wind. “I'm nigh on to sifflicated every time I goes down yander ter Colbury” (with a jerk of his wooden head in the direction of the village).

Long stretches of woods are on either side of the road now, with no sign of the changing season in the foliage save the slender, pointed, scarlet leaves and creamy plumes of the sourwood, gleaming here and there; and presently another panorama of open country unrolls to the view. Two or three frame houses appear with gardens and orchards, a number of humble log cabins, and a dingy little store, and the Cross-Roads are reached. And here the conclusive intelligence meets the party that Jacob and Cynthia were married by Parson Jones an hour ago, and were still “a-kitin',” at last accounts, out on the road to Old Bear.

The pursuit stayed its ardor. On the auspicious day when Jenkins Hollis took the blue ribbon at the County Fair and won the saddle and bridle he lost his daughter.

They saw Cynthia no more until late in the autumn when she came, without a word of self-justification or apology for her conduct, to lend her mother a helping hand in spinning and weaving her little brothers' and sisters' clothes. And gradually the éclat attendant upon her nuptials was forgotten, except that Mrs. Hollis now and then remarks that she “dunno how we could hev bore up agin Cynthy's a-runnin' away like she done, ef it hedn't a-been fur that thar saddle an' bridle an' takin' the blue ribbon at the County Fair.”