THERE had once been a path along the backbone of the mountain, but the wilderness had undertaken to remove it, and had almost succeeded. The wind had gathered bits of moss, twigs and dead stuff into the slight depression. The great hickories had covered it with leaves. The rain had packed it. There was no longer a path, only an open way between the trees running down the gentle slope of the ridge to the mountain road. The ridge was heavily wooded. The primeval forest was there. Great hickories shot up sixty feet without a limb, and so close that a man putting out his hand could reach from one tree to another. A gigantic poplar now and then arose, a sugar maple, an oak—huge at the butt, deep rooted in the good soil.The afternoon sun, excluded of the forest, seemed to pack itself into this abandoned path.The leaves fallen from the hickories, under the touch of waning summer, took on now, by the magic of this sun, golden tones of red and yellow. Woodpeckers hammered on the great trees along this path. Insects moved between the branches, the wild bee, the hornet, the yellow butterfly, as though the aerial life of the woods had been drawn here to the sun.
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WHEN the man came out into the mountain road, he saw the little boy sitting on the sack of corn beside the red ox, and he smiled as he had smiled at the hammering birds, at the yellow butterflies. He turned down toward the tragic picture, lengthening his steps. The sun, by some trick of the moving world, seemed to follow him out of the abandoned path.
The little boy did not see the man approaching, but he observed that the ox, apparently resigned to passing the night on the mountain, was making ready to lie down, knees first, after the manner of cattle. And the comfortable assurance of Berry in this, the hour of their misfortune, was more than he could bear. He arose and began to beat the ox with his little fists.
"Git up, Berry!" he cried. "You ole dog! You ole scalawag! Git up!"
The ox slowly arose, and the child turned to find the man beside him.
"Poor Berry!" said the man, smiling. "Is he a very bad ox?"
"He's a lazy ole pup," replied the little boy, his wet eyes catching and reflecting the stranger's smile. "He's spilt!" Then he crowded his little fists into his eyes to remove the traces of weakness with which he had been taken unawares.
"Do you reckon," he said, "that both of us could put the corn on him if we lifted together?"
"I think so," replied the man; "at least we will try."
He took up the piece of yellow carpet and laid it over the ox's back. Then he stooped down, put his arms around the sack, linking his fingers together under it. The little boy took hold of the corner. The man raised the sack with scarcely an effort, the child contributing his tiny might. Then, as though the child's help were essential to the task, he nodded.
"Now," he said, and with a swing lifted the sack onto the ox's back.
The boy straightened up, and put both little hands on his hips. His face was now radiant.
"We got it up all right, didn't we?" he said, "both a-liftin'; an' now," he paused and regarded the ox with some concern, "I've got to git on somehow-er-nuther." The ordinary man would then have lifted the child and set him on the ox, but this man did not. He seemed to know and regard that self-reliance which was so dear a thing to this child. He stood back and looked over the patriarch.
"Berry is a big ox," he said. "We will lead him up to the bank."
The little boy walked across the road, with a bit of a swagger.
"Yes," he said, "Berry's a big ox."
He liked this strange man who understood and considered him.
The man led the ox to the roadside, and standing by the beast's shoulder, set his knee against the bank. The little boy put his foot on the man's knee, caught hold of the ox's shoulder, and climbed up onto the sack of corn. He panted with the effort.
"Berry's everlastin' big," he observed in comment. Then he set himself squarely on the sack.
"We're goin' to mill," he said. "Where are you goin'?"
"If you don't mind," replied the man, "I shall go along with you and Berry."
The tiny chest expanded.
"I don't mind," he said, "ner Berry don't neither."
Then, as a sort of condescension, as a sort of return for the man's kindness, he gravely handed down the bit of ancient rope.
"An' you k'n lead Berry if you want to."
They crossed the low gap and began to descend the mountain on the other side. The man walked in front with the rope in his hand, the ox followed with a slow, roiling gait, his head lowered, the child sitting astride the sack of corn. The sun seemed to linger on the crest of the mountain as though loath, now, to withdraw wholly from the world, a vagrant breeze began to move idly in the tree tops, a faint haze to gather over the forests, below the sun, as though it were some visible odor arising from the earth.
The road was steep and rough, low stumps and the roots of trees remained in it, and it was washed out in great ruts. The winter rain had carried the loose earth out of it and left the stones and the tree roots uncovered. A modern vehicle could hardly have kept together on such a road, although it bore the marks of wheels where the mountaineer had gone over with his wagon.
The little boy sat regarding the man who walked before him in the road. He seemed not to have felt with this man that fear of the stranger which is so strong an instinct with a child. From the first moment he had been wholly at his ease. He spoke without restraint.
"Where's your hat?" he said.
The man paused, and put up his hand as though he had not until this moment realized that he was bareheaded.
A note of distress came into the child's voice.
"You've lost your hat. Are you goin' back to look for it? 'Cause me an' Berry can go on to the mill by ourselves."
"No," said the man, "I shall go on with you and Berry."
"But you ain't got no hat," the child continued.
"Perhaps I shall find one somewhere," replied the man.
"No," said the child, "you won't never find one, 'cause nobody don't lose their hats up here. You'll have to buy one at the store."
Then he went on to tell of all the wonderful things that the store contained: Striped candy in sticks in a big glass jar, and fishhooks, and sea grass fishin' lines, and guns, and pistols, and knives. But principally knives. Upon this particular topic he spoke with deep personal interest. In that place of wonders were knives with six blades, with "peraly" handles, with gimlets and tweezers in them, little knives that one could hide between one's fingers and big ones with a ring in the handle so one could tie them to his "galluses." And Barlows with IXL on the blade.
He paused and thrust his hand into his pocket. He had one that his grandfather had given him at Christmas, and he held it up—a Barlow with a bone handle and a single blade.
The man stopped and came back to the ox's shoulder. He took the knife and examined it carefully, opened it and tried the edge on his thumb. The blade was round and blunt at the end. The child explained this with an air of apology.
"Gran'-pap was afraid I'd run it in my eye, so he grinded it off. Have you got a knife?"
The man felt in his pockets.
"No," he replied, "I don't seem to have a knife."
"Well," said the little boy, "you can git one when you go to git your hat."
The man walked on by the ox's shoulder, and the child continued to talk. There were difficulties to be met. The store was very far away, and one required money to obtain its treasures. The getting of money was a very troublesome affair. But he knew a way or two by which the thing could be accomplished. One could gather hickory nuts or one could dig ginseng. The latter method was to be advised—a pound brought a dollar and seventeen cents. But it must be dried. One strung it on a string and hung it over the fireplace. The storekeeper would not take it green.
He spoke a word of comment concerning the storekeeper.
He was hard to fool. He always broke the ginseng roots to see if there was a nail concealed inside. The child knew a man who had outwitted the storekeeper once by putting shot in the ends of the root, leaving the middle unmolested; but, he added, that was "no way to do."
The road on this side of the mountain was steep. The turns short. The little party soon reached the foot, and came out into a valley, cleared and sowed in timothy grass. Through this valley, between sodded banks, ran a dark-colored, swiftly flowing stream.
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