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- A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill - 3/51 -
"Can't hit a barn door."
The Colonel heaved a deep sigh, drained the last drops from his tumbler, then leaned forward, confidentially:
"Noah Wicker, do you like that young chap?"
"Like him?" Noah looked up in surprise. "Why, everybody likes Don Morley."
"I don't," said the Colonel fiercely. "Here he comes now. I wish you'd look at that!"
A headlong young man in model riding costume, astride a bob-tailed sorrel, rashly took a fence where gate there was none, and came cantering across the Colonel's favorite stretch of blue grass.
"Awfully sorry to have cut across, Colonel!" he called out in tones that spoke little contrition. "Slipped my trolley as usual and got lost in the bullrushes. Hope I haven't kept Miss Lady waiting?"
The Colonel rose and extended a hand of welcome. A true Kentuckian may commit murder and still be a gentleman, but to fail in hospitality is to forfeit even his own self-respect.
"My daughter, Mr. Morley, will be out presently," he announced with great formality.
"And how are you, Mike?" went on young Morley, stooping to pat the dog; "didn't mean to cut you, old fellow, 'pon my word I didn't."
The dog, a shaggy beast, with small, plaintive eyes looking out from a fringe of wiry hair, expressed his appreciation of this attention with all the emotion a stump of tail would permit.
"It's a bully day!" continued the visitor with enthusiasm, wiping his wrists and forehead, and tossing his hair back. "If I weren't going to town to-night I'd ask you to take me fishing, Colonel. Hello! What kind of a reel is that?"
Now the article which had attracted attention happened to be an invention of the Colonel's, something he had been working on for a long time, so he could not resist explaining its unique qualities.
"Well, I'll be hanged!" said Morley, turning it over and over admiringly. "If that isn't the cleverest thing I ever saw. This little screw regulates the slack, doesn't it? Does your legal mind get on to that, Wick?"
"It was a great job to get that to fit," said the Colonel, nattered in spite of himself. "Took me the best part of a week to puzzle out that one point."
"A week!" exclaimed Morley. "It would have taken me months! Oh! here she is!" and from the very ardent look that leapt into his face, and the alacrity with which he sprang up, it might have been doubted whether his mind had been wholly upon the matter under discussion.
Miss Lady greeted him with almost boyish frankness, but there was an unmistakable flush under the smooth tan of her cheek that did not escape the vigilant eye of the Colonel.
"Here you are, Dad! here you are, Noah!" she said, tossing a small package to each; "sandwiches and hard boiled eggs for two."
"Put the salt in for the eggs?" asked the Colonel, having had experience with her lunches.
"I believe I did. Open yours and see, Noah. Say, Daddy darling!" she swooped down upon him from the rear, slipping an arm about his neck as he knelt on the porch to collect his hooks and lines, "you are going to let me ride Prince, just this once, aren't you?"
[Illustration: The Colonel leaned back upon his knees and glared at Morley.]
The Colonel gasped, partly from strangulation, and partly from amazement.
"Prince!" he cried. "Well, I reckon not! That colt's hardly broken to the saddle. He threw Jimpson last week."
"Well, I'm not Jimpson. Please, Daddy, just this once."
"If that's the little beast Wick was telling me about," said Morley, "we are certainly not going to trust you on him."
The Colonel leaned back upon his knees where he knelt on the porch, and glared at Morley.
"Who do you mean by we?"
"The conservative party of which I, for once, am a member. From all I can hear of that colt, no girl could handle him."
"You are absolutely mistaken, sir! I taught my daughter to straddle a horse before I taught her to walk. Handle him? Of course she can handle him! Jimpson!" he roared in conclusion, "put the side-saddle on Prince!"
The Cane Run Road lay straight ahead, now white under the full light of the sun, now dappled with tiny dancing shadows from the interlaced twigs overhead, new clothed in their garb of green. White and purple violets peeped from the fence corners, and overhead the birds made busy in the branches.
Two young people, flushed and smiling, drew rein and looked at each other. In the eyes of each was a challenge.
"I'll race you to the mill!" cried Miss Lady, tugging at her bridle. "Don't start 'til I give the word. Now, go!"
Off through the smiling, sunlit fields they dashed, too impetuous and young, and gloriously free, to waste a thought on that inexorable wheel of life, upon which sooner or later the most irresponsible must break their wings. On and on they went, neck to neck, the gallop breaking into a run. Down past the blacksmith's, past the old mill which was to have been the goal, through the long covered bridge, over the hill and out again on the level road where they still kept abreast.
And close upon them, with head up and mane flying, came another steed, free, irresponsible, unbridled, invisible. It was Romance, pounding in their wake; Romance, whose hoof beats made their pulses dance in unison, whose breath upon their cheeks made them laugh for joy in the face of the wind.
They were almost to the city now, having reached that slovenly suburb that had given its plebeian name to the once aristocratic neighborhood. Clouds of dust whirled in their wake, and stones flew right and left under the horses' hoofs; men in carts pulled their teams to the side of the road to let the mad pair pass; dogs dashed from dark doorways, barking furiously.
Suddenly, just as they neared the railroad junction, the sharp whistle of an engine sent Prince plunging into the air. Donald rose in his stirrups and made a frantic clutch at the horse's head, but even as he missed it, he heard the clanging signal for an approaching train and saw the gates immediately in front of them descending. Instantly he flung himself out of the saddle, and sprang for Prince's head. The horse, almost under the nose of the engine, reared frantically, swerved, then came to a trembling stand, as Miss Lady deftly loosened her skirt from the pommel, and swung herself to the ground.
In a second Don was beside her.
"Are you hurt?" he cried, catching her arm with his free hand and looking anxiously into her face.
"Not a bit. Who won?" she asked with a little catch in her voice.
"Lord! You were plucky! If anything had happened to you!" his hand tightened on her wrist, and he drew in his breath sharply.
The afternoon freight came lumbering by, and they stood close together with the hot breath of the engine in their faces. Her hair blew across his face and he could feel her body trembling against his shoulder. Neither of them seemed to be aware of the fact that he still held her hand, and that the horses were tugging at their respective bridles.
As the train thundered past and the gates lifted, Miss Lady turned quickly and began to pin up her loosened hair.
"Pretty narrow shave, Miss," commented a redheaded man with a flag, hurrying across the track, and joining an old apple-woman and two small boys who constituted an interested audience.
"I seen you a-coming an' would 'a' let you through, only I'm a- substitutin' on this job, and wasn't in fer takin' no extry risks."
"Here, boy!" cried Donald, "hold my horse. The girth's broken; I'll have to make another hole in the strap."
The word "boy" being a generic term was promptly appropriated by each of the youngsters as applying to himself, and a fierce scramble ensued in which the larger was victorious.
"Skeeter's it," announced the flagman, a self-constituted umpire. "Git out 'er the way there, Chick, and give the gent a chanct to see what he's a-doin'."
Chick, a large-headed, small-bodied goblin of a boy, made an unintelligible, guttural sound in his throat and remained where he was, evidently considering it of paramount importance that _he_ should see what the gentleman was doing.
It was with some difficulty that the new hole in the strap was made, and to secure the buckle more firmly Don gave it several sharp raps with the handle of his riding whip. At the last one the silver knob flew from the handle and rolled to the roadside.
In an instant the small boys were after it, the older having deserted his post without compunction, when a question of booty was involved. They grappled together in the dust of the road, long before they
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