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- Openings in the Old Trail - 5/35 -
think so too? And yet the boy was not happy; something intruded upon his sports, upon his books, making them dull and vapid, and yet that something was she! He grew pale and preoccupied. If he had only some one in whom to confide--some one who could explain his hopes and fears. That one was nearer than he thought!
It was quite three weeks since the rattlesnake incident, and he was wandering moodily over Casket Ridge. He was near the Casket, that abrupt upheaval of quartz and gneiss, shaped like a coffer, from which the mountain took its name. It was a favorite haunt of Leonidas, one of whose boyish superstitions was that it contained a treasure of gold, and one of whose brightest dreams had been that he should yet discover it. This he did not do to-day, but looking up from the rocks that he was listlessly examining, he made the almost as thrilling discovery that near him on the trail was a distinguished-looking stranger.
He was bestriding a shapely mustang, which well became his handsome face and slight, elegant figure, and he was looking at Leonidas with an amused curiosity and a certain easy assurance that were difficult to withstand. It was with the same fascinating self- confidence of smile, voice, and manner that he rode up to the boy, and leaning lightly over his saddle, said with exaggerated politeness: "I believe I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Leonidas Boone?"
The rising color in Leonidas's face was apparently a sufficient answer to the stranger, for he continued smilingly, "Then permit me to introduce myself as Mr. James Belcher. As you perceive, I have grown considerably since you last saw me. In fact, I've done nothing else. It's surprising what a fellow can do when he sets his mind on one thing. And then, you know, they're always telling you that San Francisco is a 'growing place.' That accounts for it!"
Leonidas, dazed, dazzled, but delighted, showed all his white teeth in a shy laugh. At which the enchanting stranger leaped from his horse like a very boy, drew his arm through the rein, and going up to Leonidas, lifted the boy's straw hat from his head and ran his fingers through his curls. There was nothing original in that-- everybody did that to him as a preliminary to conversation. But when this ingenuous fine gentleman put his own Panama hat on Leonidas's head, and clapped Leonidas's torn straw on his own, and, passing his arm through the boy's, began to walk on with him, Leonidas's simple heart went out to him at once.
"And now, Leon," said the delightful stranger, "let's you and me have a talk. There's a nice cool spot under these laurels; I'll stake out Pepita, and we'll just lie off there and gab, and not care if school keeps or not."
"But you know you ain't really Jim Belcher," said the boy shyly.
"I'm as good a man as he is any day, whoever I am," said the stranger, with humorous defiance, "and can lick him out of his boots, whoever HE is. That ought to satisfy you. But if you want my certificate, here's your own letter, old man," he said, producing Leonidas's last scrawl from his pocket.
"And HERS?" said the boy cautiously.
The stranger's face changed a little. "And HERS," he repeated gravely, showing a little pink note which Leonidas recognized as one of Mrs. Burroughs's inclosures. The boy was silent until they reached the laurels, where the stranger tethered his horse and then threw himself in an easy attitude beneath the tree, with the back of his head upon his clasped hands. Leonidas could see his curved brown mustaches and silky lashes that were almost as long, and thought him the handsomest man he had ever beheld.
"Well, Leon," said the stranger, stretching himself out comfortably and pulling the boy down beside him, "how are things going on the Casket? All serene, eh?"
The inquiry so dismally recalled Leonidas's late feelings that his face clouded, and he involuntarily sighed. The stranger instantly shifted his head and gazed curiously at him. Then he took the boy's sunburnt hand in his own, and held it a moment. "Well, go on," he said.
"Well, Mr.--Mr.--I can't go on--I won't!" said Leonidas, with a sudden fit of obstinacy. "I don't know what to call you."
"Call me 'Jack'--'Jack Hamlin' when you're not in a hurry. Ever heard of me before?" he added, suddenly turning his head towards Leonidas.
The boy shook his head. "No."
Mr. Jack Hamlin lifted his lashes in affected expostulation to the skies. "And this is Fame!" he murmured audibly.
But this Leonidas did not comprehend. Nor could he understand why the stranger, who clearly must have come to see HER, should not ask about her, should not rush to seek her, but should lie back there all the while so contentedly on the grass. HE wouldn't. He half resented it, and then it occurred to him that this fine gentleman was like himself--shy. Who could help being so before such an angel? HE would help him on.
And so, shyly at first, but bit by bit emboldened by a word or two from Jack, he began to talk of her--of her beauty--of her kindness-- of his own unworthiness--of what she had said and done--until, finding in this gracious stranger the vent his pent-up feelings so long had sought, he sang then and there the little idyl of his boyish life. He told of his decline in her affections after his unpardonable sin in keeping her waiting while he went for the trout, and added the miserable mistake of the rattlesnake episode. "For it was a mistake, Mr. Hamlin. I oughtn't to have let a lady like that know anything about snakes--just because I happen to know them."
"It WAS an awful slump, Lee," said Hamlin gravely. "Get a woman and a snake together--and where are you? Think of Adam and Eve and the serpent, you know."
"But it wasn't that way," said the boy earnestly. "And I want to tell you something else that's just makin' me sick, Mr. Hamlin. You know I told you William Henry lives down at the bottom of Burroughs's garden, and how I showed Mrs. Burroughs his tricks! Well, only two days ago I was down there looking for him, and couldn't find him anywhere. There's a sort of narrow trail from the garden to the hill, a short cut up to the Ridge, instead o' going by their gate. It's just the trail any one would take in a hurry, or if they didn't want to be seen from the road. Well! I was looking this way and that for William Henry, and whistlin' for him, when I slipped on to the trail. There, in the middle of it, was an old bucket turned upside down--just the thing a man would kick away or a woman lift up. Well, Mr. Hamlin, I kicked it away, and"--the boy stopped, with rounded eyes and bated breath, and added--"I just had time to give one jump and save myself! For under that pail, cramped down so he couldn't get out, and just bilin' over with rage, and chockful of pizen, was William Henry! If it had been anybody else less spry, they'd have got bitten,--and that's just what the sneak who put it there knew."
Mr. Hamlin uttered an exclamation under his breath, and rose to his feet.
"What did you say?" asked the boy quickly.
"Nothing," said Mr. Hamlin.
But it had sounded to Leonidas like an oath.
Mr. Hamlin walked a few steps, as if stretching his limbs, and then said: "And you think Burroughs would have been bitten?"
"Why, no!" said Leonidas in astonished indignation; "of course not-- not BURROUGHS. It would have been poor MRS. Burroughs. For, of course, HE set that trap for her--don't you see? Who else would do it?"
"Of course, of course! Certainly," said Mr. Hamlin coolly. "Of course, as you say, HE set the trap--yes--you just hang on to that idea."
But something in Mr. Hamlin's manner, and a peculiar look in his eye, did not satisfy Leonidas. "Are you going to see her now?" he said eagerly. "I can show you the house, and then run in and tell her you're outside in the laurels."
"Not just yet," said Mr. Hamlin, laying his hand on the boy's head after having restored his own hat. "You see, I thought of giving her a surprise. A big surprise!" he added slowly. After a pause, he went on: "Did you tell her what you had seen?"
"Of course I did," said Leonidas reproachfully. "Did you think I was going to let her get bit? It might have killed her."
"And it might not have been an unmixed pleasure for William Henry. I mean," said Mr. Hamlin gravely, correcting himself, "YOU would never have forgiven him. But what did she say?"
The boy's face clouded. "She thanked me and said it was very thoughtful--and kind--though it might have been only an accident"-- he stammered--"and then she said perhaps I was hanging round and coming there a little too much lately, and that as Burroughs was very watchful, I'd better quit for two or three days." The tears were rising to his eyes, but by putting his two clenched fists into his pockets, he managed to hold them down. Perhaps Mr. Hamlin's soft hand on his head assisted him. Mr. Hamlin took from his pocket a notebook, and tearing out a leaf, sat down again and began to write on his knee. After a pause, Leonidas said,--
"Was you ever in love, Mr. Hamlin?"
"Never," said Mr. Hamlin, quietly continuing to write. "But, now you speak of it, it's a long-felt want in my nature that I intend to supply some day. But not until I've made my pile. And don't YOU either." He continued writing, for it was this gentleman's peculiarity to talk without apparently the slightest concern whether anybody else spoke, whether he was listened to, or whether his remarks were at all relevant to the case. Yet he was always listened to for that reason. When he had finished writing, he folded up the paper, put it in an envelope, and addressed it.
"Shall I take it to her?" said Leonidas eagerly.
"It's not for HER; it's for him--Mr. Burroughs," said Mr. Hamlin
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