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- Openings in the Old Trail - 4/35 -
"Haven't you sense enough to know that he suspects something, and follows me everywhere, dogging my footsteps every time the post comes in, and even going to the post-office himself, to make sure that he sees all my letters? Well," she added impatiently, "have you anything for me? Why don't you speak?"
Crushed and remorseful, Leonidas produced her letter. She almost snatched it from his hand, opened it, read a few lines, and her face changed. A smile strayed from her eyes to her lips, and back again. Leonidas's heart was lifted; she was so forgiving and so beautiful!
"Is he a boy, Mrs. Burroughs?" asked Leonidas shyly.
"Well--not exactly," she said, her charming face all radiant again. "He's older than you. What has he written to you?"
Leonidas put his letter in her hand for reply.
"I wish I could see him, you know," he said shyly. "That letter's bully--it's just rats! I like him pow'ful."
Mrs. Burroughs had skimmed through the letter, but not interestedly.
"You mustn't like him more than you like me," she said laughingly, caressing him with her voice and eyes, and even her straying hand.
"I couldn't do that! I never could like anybody as I like you," said. Leonidas gravely. There was such appalling truthfulness in the boy's voice and frankly opened eyes that the woman could not evade it, and was slightly disconcerted. But she presently started up with a vexatious cry. "There's that wretch following me again, I do believe," she said, staring at the hilltop. "Yes! Look, Leon, he's turning to come down this trail. What's to be done? He mustn't see me here!"
Leonidas looked. It was indeed Mr. Burroughs; but he was evidently only taking a short cut towards the Ridge, where his men were working. Leonidas had seen him take it before. But it was the principal trail on the steep hillside, and they must eventually meet. A man might evade it by scrambling through the brush to a lower and rougher trail; but a woman, never! But an idea had seized Leonidas. "I can stop him," he said confidently to her. "You just lie low here behind that rock till I come back. He hasn't seen you yet."
She had barely time to draw back before Leonidas darted down the trail towards her husband. Yet, in her intense curiosity, she leaned out the next moment to watch him. He paused at last, not far from the approaching figure, and seemed to kneel down on the trail. What was he doing? Her husband was still slowly advancing. Suddenly he stopped. At the same moment she heard their two voices in excited parley, and then, to her amazement, she saw her husband scramble hurriedly down the trail to the lower level, and with an occasional backward glance, hasten away until he had passed beyond her view.
She could scarcely realize her narrow escape when Leonidas stood by her side. "How did you do it?" she said eagerly.
"With a rattler!" said the boy gravely.
"With a what?"
"A rattlesnake--pizen snake, you know."
"A rattlesnake?" she said, staring at Leonidas with a quick snatching away of her skirts.
The boy, who seemed to have forgotten her in his other abstraction of adventure, now turned quickly, with devoted eyes and a reassuring smile.
"Yes; but I wouldn't let him hurt you," he said gently.
"But what did you DO?"
He looked at her curiously. "You won't be frightened if I show you?" he said doubtfully. "There's nothin' to be afeerd of s'long as you're with me," he added proudly.
"Yes--that is"--she stammered, and then, her curiosity getting the better of her fear, she added in a whisper: "Show me quick!"
He led the way up the narrow trail until he stopped where he had knelt before. It was a narrow, sunny ledge of rock, scarcely wide enough for a single person to pass. He silently pointed to a cleft in the rock, and kneeling down again, began to whistle in a soft, fluttering way. There was a moment of suspense, and then she was conscious of an awful gliding something,--a movement so measured yet so exquisitely graceful that she stood enthralled. A narrow, flattened, expressionless head was followed by a footlong strip of yellow-barred scales; then there was a pause, and the head turned, in a beautifully symmetrical half-circle, towards the whistler. The whistling ceased; the snake, with half its body out of the cleft, remained poised in air as if stiffened to stone.
"There," said Leonidas quietly, "that's what Mr. Burroughs saw, and that's WHY he scooted off the trail. I just called out William Henry,--I call him William Henry, and he knows his name,--and then I sang out to Mr. Burroughs what was up; and it was lucky I did, for the next moment he'd have been on top of him and have been struck, for rattlers don't give way to any one."
"Oh, why didn't you let"-- She stopped herself quickly, but could not stop the fierce glint in her eye nor the sharp curve in her nostril. Luckily, Leonidas did not see this, being preoccupied with his other graceful charmer, William Henry.
"But how did you know it was here?" said Mrs. Burroughs, recovering herself.
"Fetched him here," said Leonidas briefly.
"What in your hands?" she said, drawing back.
"No! made him follow! I HAVE handled him, but it was after I'd first made him strike his pizen out upon a stick. Ye know, after he strikes four times he ain't got any pizen left. Then ye kin do anythin' with him, and he knows it. He knows me, you bet! I've bin three months trainin' him. Look! Don't be frightened," he said, as Mrs. Burroughs drew hurriedly back; "see him mind me. Now scoot home, William Henry."
He accompanied the command with a slow, dominant movement of the hickory rod he was carrying. The snake dropped its head, and slid noiselessly out of the cleft across the trail and down the hill.
"Thinks my rod is witch-hazel, which rattlers can't abide," continued Leonidas, dropping into a boy's breathless abbreviated speech. "Lives down your way--just back of your farm. Show ye some day. Suns himself on a flat stone every day--always cold-- never can get warm. Eh?"
She had not spoken, but was gazing into space with a breathless rigidity of attitude and a fixed look in her eye, not unlike the motionless orbs of the reptile that had glided away.
"Does anybody else know you keep him?" she asked.
"Nary one. I never showed him to anybody but you," replied the boy.
"Don't! You must show me where he hides to-morrow," she said, in her old laughing way. "And now, Leon, I must go back to the house."
"May I write to him--to Jim Belcher, Mrs. Burroughs?" said the boy timidly.
"Certainly. And come to me to-morrow with your letter--I will have mine ready. Good-by." She stopped and glanced at the trail. "And you say that if that man had kept on, the snake would have bitten him?"
"Sure pop!--if he'd trod on him--as he was sure to. The snake wouldn't have known he didn't mean it. It's only natural," continued Leonidas, with glowing partisanship for the gentle and absent William Henry. "YOU wouldn't like to be trodden upon, Mrs. Burroughs!"
"No! I'd strike out!" she said quickly. She made a rapid motion forward with her low forehead and level head, leaving it rigid the next moment, so that it reminded him of the snake, and he laughed. At which she laughed too, and tripped away.
Leonidas went back and caught his trout. But even this triumph did not remove a vague sense of disappointment which had come over him. He had often pictured to himself a Heaven-sent meeting with her in the woods, a walk with her, alone, where he could pick her the rarest flowers and herbs and show her his woodland friends; and it had only ended in this, and an exhibition of William Henry! He ought to have saved HER from something, and not her husband. Yet he had no ill-feeling for Burroughs, only a desire to circumvent him, on behalf of the unprotected, as he would have baffled a hawk or a wildcat. He went home in dismal spirits, but later that evening constructed a boyish letter of thanks to the apocryphal Belcher and told him all about--the trout!
He brought her his letter the next day, and received hers to inclose. She was pleasant, her own charming self again, but she seemed more interested in other things than himself, as, for instance, the docile William Henry, whose hiding-place he showed, and whose few tricks she made him exhibit to her, and which the gratified Leonidas accepted as a delicate form of flattery to himself. But his yearning, innocent spirit detected a something lacking, which he was too proud to admit even to himself. It was his own fault; he ought to have waited for her, and not gone for the trout!
So a fortnight passed with an interchange of the vicarious letters, and brief, hopeful, and disappointing meetings to Leonidas. To add to his unhappiness, he was obliged to listen to sneering disparagement of his goddess from his family, and criticisms which, happily, his innocence did not comprehend. It was his own mother who accused her of shamefully "making up" to the good-looking expressman at church last Sunday, and declared that Burroughs ought to "look after that wife of his,"--two statements which the simple Leonidas could not reconcile. He had seen the incident, and only thought her more lovely than ever. Why should not the expressman
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