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- The Law of the Land - 6/49 -


and the flash of a bunch of scarlet ribbons. Thither he gazed as directly as he might in these circumstances.

"Dat's her! dat's Miss Lady!" said Bill to his new friend, in a low voice. "Han'somest young lady in de hull Delta. Dey'll all be right glad ter see de Cunnel back. He's got a b'ah sho', fer he's comin' a- blowin'."

Bill's joy was not long-lived, for even as the little cavalcade came in view, a tall figure on a chestnut hunting horse riding well in advance, certain colored stragglers following, and the party-colored pack trotting or limping along on all sides, the music of the summoning horn suddenly ceased. Looking neither to the right nor to the left, the leader of the hunt rode on up the lane, sitting loose and careless in the saddle, his right hand steadying a short rifle across the saddle front. He rode thus until presently those at the Big House heard, softly rising on the morning air, the chant of an old church hymn: "On Jordan's strand I'll _take_ my stand, An-n-n--"

"Oh, Lawd!" exclaimed Bill. "Dat's his very wustest chune." Saying which he dodged around the corner of the house.

CHAPTER IV

A QUESTION OP VALUATION

Turning in from the lane at the yard gate, Colonel Calvin Blount and his retinue rode close up to the side door of the plantation house; but even here the master vouchsafed no salutation to those who awaited his coming. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, lean and muscular; yet so far from being thin and dark, he was spare rather from physical exercise than through gaunt habit of body; his complexion was ruddy and sun-colored, and the long mustache hanging across his jaws showed a deep mahogany-red. Western ranchman one might have called him, rather than southern planter. Scotch-Irish, generations back, perhaps, yet southern always, and by birth-right American, he might have been a war-lord of another land and day. No feudal baron ever dismounted with more assuredness at his own hall, to toss careless rein to a retainer. He stood now, tall and straight, a trifle rough-looking in his careless planter's dress, but every inch the master. A slight frown puckered up his forehead, giving to his face an added hint of sternness.

Behind this leading figure of the cavalcade came a younger man. In age perhaps at the mid thirties, tall, slender, with dark hair and eyes and with a dark mustache shading his upper lip, Henry Decherd, formerly of New Orleans, for a few years dweller in the Delta, sometime guest of Colonel Blount at the Big House plantation and companion of the hunt, made now a figure if not wholly eye-filling, at least handsome and distinguished. His dress was neat to the verge of foppishness, nor did it seem much disordered by the hardships of the chase. Upon his clean-cut face there sat a certain arrogance, as of one at least desirous of having his own way in his own sphere. Not an ill-looking man, upon the whole, was Henry Decherd, though his reddish-yellow eyes, a bit oblique in their setting, gave the impression alike of a certain touchiness of temper and an unpleasantly fox-like quality of character. There was an air not barren of self-consciousness as he threw himself out of the saddle, for it might have been seen that under his saddle, and not that of Colonel Blount, there rested the black and glossy hide of the great bear which had been the object of the chase. Decherd stood with his hand resting on the hide and gazed somewhat eagerly, one might have thought, toward the gallery whence came the flash of scarlet ribbons.

Colonel Blount busied himself with directions as to the horses and dogs. The latter came straggling along in groups or pairs or singles, some of them hobbling on three legs, many showing bitter wounds. The chase of the great bear had proved stern pastime for them. Of half a hundred hounds which had started, not two-thirds were back again, and many of these would be unfit for days for the resumption of their savage trade. None the less, as the master sounded again, loud and clear, the call for the assembly, all the dogs about the place, young and old, homekeepers and warriors, came pouring in with heads uplifted, each pealing out his sweet and mournful music. Colonel Blount spoke to dozens of them, calling each by its proper name.

"Here, Bill," he called to that worthy, who had now ventured to return from his hiding-place, "take them out to the yard and fix them up. Now, boys, go around to the kitchen and tell them to give you something to eat."

In the confusion of the disbandment of the hunt, the master of the Big House had as yet hardly found time to look about him, but now, as the conclave scattered, he found himself alone, and turning, discovered the occupant of the board-pile, who arose and advanced, offering his hand.

"This is Colonel Blount, I presume," said he.

"Yes, sir, that's my name. I beg your pardon, I'm sure, but I didn't know you were there. Come right on into the house and sit down, sir. Now, your name is--?"

"Eddring," said the new-comer. "John Eddring. I am just down on the morning train from the city."

"I'm right glad to see you, Mr. Eddring," said Colonel Blount, extending his hand. "It seems to me I ought to know your family. Over round Hillsboro, aren't you? Tell me, you're not the son of old Dan H. Eddring of the Tenth Mississippi in the war?"

"That was an uncle of mine."

"Is that so, is that so? Why, Dan H. Eddring was my father's friend. They slept and fought and ate together for four years, until my father was killed in the Wilderness."

"And my uncle before Richmond; John Eddring, my father, long before, at Ball's Bluff."

"I was in some of that fighting myself," said Colonel Blount, rubbing his chin. "I was a boy, just a boy. Well, it's all over now. Come on in. I'm mighty glad to see you." Yet the two, without plan, had now wandered over toward the shade of the evergreen, and presently they seated themselves on the board-pile.

"Well, Colonel Blount," said the visitor, "I reckon you must have had a good hunt."

"Yes, sir, there ain't a b'ah in the Delta can get away from those dogs. We run this fellow straight on end for ten miles; put him across the river twice, and all around the Black Bayou, but the dogs kept him hot all the time, I'm telling you, for more than five miles through the cane, clean beyond the bayou."

"Who got the shot, Colonel?" asked Eddring--a question apparently most unwelcome.

"Well, I ought to have had it," said Blount, with a frown of displeasure. "The fact is, I did take a flying chance from horseback, when the b'ah ran by in the cane half a mile back of where they killed him. Somehow I must have missed. A little while later I heard another shot, and found that young gentleman there, Mr. Decherd, had beat me in the ride. But man! you ought to have heard that pack for two hours through the woods. It certainly would have raised your hair straight up. You ever hunt b'ah, sir?"

"A little, once in a while, when I have the time."

"Well, you don't go away from here without having a good hunt. You just wait a day or so until my dogs get rested up."

"Thank you, Colonel, but I am afraid I can't stay. You see, I am down here on a matter of business."

"Business, eh?"--Well, a man that'll let business interfere with a b'ah hunt has got something wrong about him."

"Well, you see, a railroad man can't always choose," said his guest.

"Railroad man?" said Colonel Blount. A sudden gloom fell on his ruddy face. "Railroad man, eh? Well, I wish you was something else. Now, I helped get that railroad through this country--if it hadn't been for me, they never could have laid a mile of track through here. But now, do you know what they done did to me the other day, with their damned old railroad?"

"No, sir, I haven't heard."

"Well, I'll tell you--Bill! Oh, _Bill!_ Go into the house and get me some ice; and go pick some mint and bring it here to this gentleman and me--Say, do you know what that railroad did? Why, it just killed the best filly on my plantation, my best running stock, too. Now, I was the man to help get that railroad through the Delta, and I--"

"Well, now, Colonel Blount," said the other, "the road isn't a bad sort of thing for you-all down here, after all. It relieves you of the river market and it gives you a double chance to get out your cotton. You don't have to haul your cotton twelve miles back to the boat any more. Here is your station right at your door, and you can load on the cars any day you want to."

"Oh, that's all right, that's all right. But this killing of my stock?"

"Well, that's so," said the other, facing the point and ruminatingly biting a splinter between his teeth. "It does look as if we had killed about everything loose in the whole Delta during the last month or so."

"Are you on this railroad?" asked Blount, suddenly.

"I reckon I'll have to admit that I am," said the other, smiling.

"Passenger agent, or something of that sort, I reckon? Well, let me tell you, you change your road. Say, there was a man down below here last week settling up claims--Bill! Ah-h, _Bill!_ Where you gone?"

"Yes," said Eddring, "it certainly did seem that when we built this road every cow and every nigger, not to mention a lot of white folks, made a bee-line straight for our right-of-way. Why, sir, it was a solid line of cows and niggers from Memphis to New Orleans. How could you blame an engineer if he run into something once in a while? He couldn't _help_ it."


The Law of the Land - 6/49

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