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- A Sappho of Green Springs - 3/32 -
The boy returned as he was folding the letter. Mr. Hamlin was not only NOT in his rooms, but, according to his negro servant Pete, had left town an hour ago for a few days in the country.
"Did he say where?" asked the editor, quickly.
"No, sir: he didn't know."
"Very well. Take this to the manager." He addressed the letter, and, scrawling a few hieroglyphics on a memorandum-tag, tore it off, and handed it with the letter to the boy.
An hour later he stood in the manager's office. "The next number is pretty well made up," he said, carelessly, "and I think of taking a day or two off."
"Certainly," said the manager. "It will do you good. Where do you think you'll go?"
"I haven't quite made up my mind."
"Hullo!" said Jack Hamlin.
He had halted his mare at the edge of an abrupt chasm. It did not appear to be fifty feet across, yet its depth must have been nearly two hundred to where the hidden mountain-stream, of which it was the banks, alternately slipped, tumbled, and fell with murmuring and monotonous regularity. One or two pine-trees growing on the opposite edge, loosened at the roots, had tilted their straight shafts like spears over the abyss, and the top of one, resting on the upper branches of a sycamore a few yards from him, served as an aerial bridge for the passage of a boy of fourteen to whom Mr. Hamlin's challenge was addressed.
The boy stopped midway in his perilous transit, and, looking down upon the horseman, responded, coolly, "Hullo, yourself!"
"Is that the only way across this infernal hole, or the one you prefer for exercise?" continued Hamlin, gravely.
The boy sat down on a bough, allowing his bare feet to dangle over the dizzy depths, and critically examined his questioner. Jack had on this occasion modified his usual correct conventional attire by a tasteful combination of a vaquero's costume, and, in loose white bullion-fringed trousers, red sash, jacket, and sombrero, looked infinitely more dashing and picturesque than his original. Nevertheless, the boy did not reply. Mr. Hamlin's pride in his usual ascendency over women, children, horses, and all unreasoning animals was deeply nettled. He smiled, however, and said, quietly,--
"Come here, George Washington. I want to talk to you."
Without rejecting this august yet impossible title, the boy presently lifted his feet, and carelessly resumed his passage across the chasm until, reaching the sycamore, he began to let himself down squirrel-wise, leap by leap, with an occasional trapeze swinging from bough to bough, dropping at last easily to the ground. Here he appeared to be rather good-looking, albeit the sun and air had worked a miracle of brown tan and freckles on his exposed surfaces, until the mottling of his oval cheeks looked like a polished bird's egg. Indeed, it struck Mr. Hamlin that he was as intensely a part of that sylvan seclusion as the hidden brook that murmured, the brown velvet shadows that lay like trappings on the white flanks of his horse, the quivering heat, and the stinging spice of bay. Mr. Hamlin had vague ideas of dryads and fauns, but at that moment would have bet something on the chances of their survival.
"I did not hear what you said just now, general," he remarked, with great elegance of manner, "but I know from your reputation that it could not be a lie. I therefore gather that there IS another way across."
The boy smiled; rather, his very short upper lip apparently vanished completely over his white teeth, and his very black eyes, which showed a great deal of the white around them, danced in their orbits.
"But YOU couldn't find it," he said, slyly.
"No more could you find the half-dollar I dropped just now, unless I helped you."
Mr. Hamlin, by way of illustration, leaned deeply over his left stirrup, and pointed to the ground. At the same moment a bright half-dollar absolutely appeared to glitter in the herbage at the point of his finger. It was a trick that had always brought great pleasure and profit to his young friends, and some loss and discomfiture of wager to his older ones.
The boy picked up the coin: "There's a dip and a level crossing about a mile over yer,"--he pointed,--"but it's through the woods, and they're that high with thick bresh."
"Bresh," repeated the boy; "THAT,"--pointing to a few fronds of bracken growing in the shadow of the sycamore.
"Yes; I said 'bresh,'" returned the boy, doggedly. "YOU might get through, ef you war spry, but not your hoss. Where do you want to go, anyway?"
"Do you know, George," said Mr. Hamlin, lazily throwing his right leg over the horn of his saddle for greater ease and deliberation in replying, "it's very odd, but that's just what I'D like to know. Now, what would YOU, in your broad statesmanlike views of things generally, advise?"
Quite convinced of the stranger's mental unsoundness, the boy glanced again at his half-dollar, as if to make sure of its integrity, pocketed it doubtfully, and turned away.
"Where are you going?" said Hamlin, resuming his seat with the agility of a circus-rider, and spurring forward.
"To Green Springs, where I live, two miles over the ridge on the far slope,"--indicating the direction.
"Ah!" said Jack, with thoughtful gravity. "Well, kindly give my love to your sister, will you?"
"George Washington didn't have no sister," said the boy, cunningly.
"Can I have been mistaken?" said Hamlin, lifting his hand to his forehead with grieved accents. "Then it seems YOU have. Kindly give her my love."
"Which one?" asked the boy, with a swift glance of mischief. "I've got four."
"The one that's like you," returned Hamlin, with prompt exactitude. "Now, where's the 'bresh' you spoke of?"
"Keep along the edge until you come to the log-slide. Foller that, and it'll lead you into the woods. But ye won't go far, I tell ye. When you have to turn back, instead o' comin' back here, you kin take the trail that goes round the woods, and that'll bring ye out into the stage road ag'in near the post-office at the Green Springs crossin' and the new hotel. That'll be war ye'll turn up, I reckon," he added, reflectively. "Fellers that come yer gunnin' and fishin' gin'rally do," he concluded, with a half-inquisitive air.
"Ah?" said Mr. Hamlin, quietly shedding the inquiry. "Green Springs Hotel is where the stage stops, eh?"
"Yes, and at the post-office," said the boy. "She'll be along here soon," he added.
"If you mean the Santa Cruz stage," said Hamlin, "she's here already. I passed her on the ridge half an hour ago."
The boy gave a sudden start, and a quick uneasy expression passed over his face. "Go 'long with ye!" he said, with a forced smile: "it ain't her time yet."
"But I SAW her," repeated Hamlin, much amused. "Are you expecting company? Hullo! Where are you off to? Come back."
But his companion had already vanished in the thicket with the undeliberate and impulsive act of an animal. There was a momentary rustle in the alders fifty feet away, and then all was silent. The hidden brook took up its monotonous murmur, the tapping of a distant woodpecker became suddenly audible, and Mr. Hamlin was again alone.
"Wonder whether he's got parents in the stage, and has been playing truant here," he mused, lazily. "Looked as if he'd been up to some devilment, or more like as if he was primed for it. If he'd been a little older, I'd have bet he was in league with some road-agents to watch the coach. Just my luck to have him light out as I was beginning to get some talk out of him." He paused, looked at his watch, and straightened himself in his stirrups. "Four o'clock. I reckon I might as well try the woods and what that imp calls the 'bresh;' I may strike a shanty or a native by the way."
With this determination, Mr. Hamlin urged his horse along the faint trail by the brink of the watercourse which the boy had just indicated. He had no definite end in view beyond the one that had brought him the day before to that locality--his quest of the unknown poetess. His clue would have seemed to ordinary humanity the faintest. He had merely noted the provincial name of a certain plant mentioned in the poem, and learned that its habitat was limited to the southern local range; while its peculiar nomenclature was clearly of French Creole or Gulf State origin. This gave him a large though sparsely-populated area for locality, while it suggested a settlement of Louisianians or Mississippians near the Summit, of whom, through their native gambling proclivities, he was professionally cognizant. But he mainly trusted Fortune. Secure in his faith in the feminine character of that goddess, he relied a great deal on her well-known weakness for scamps of his quality.
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