It must have been a happy ten days for those two young people. Every afternoon Marston would come in from the mines and they would go off horseback together, over ground that I well knew--for I had been all over it myself--up through the gray-peaked rhododendron-bordered Gap with the swirling water below them and the gray rock high above where another such foolish lover lost his life, climbing to get a flower for his sweetheart, or down the winding dirt road into Lee, or up through the beech woods behind Imboden Hill, or climbing the spur of Morris's Farm to watch the sunset over the majestic Big Black Mountains, where the Wild Dog lived, and back through the fragrant, cool, moonlit woods. He was doing his best, Marston was, and he was having trouble --as every man should. And that trouble I knew even better than he, for I had once known a Southern girl who was so tender of heart that she could refuse no man who really loved her she accepted him and sent him to her father, who did all of her refusing for her. And I knew no man would know that he had won the Blight until he had her at the altar and the priestly hand of benediction was above her head.
Of such kind was the Blight. Every night when they came in I could read the story of the day, always in his face and sometimes in hers; and it was a series of ups and downs that must have wrung the boy's heart bloodless. Still I was in good hope for him, until the crisis came on the night before the Fourth. The quarrel was as plain as though typewritten on the face of each. Marston would not come in that night and the Blight went dinnerless to bed and cried herself to sleep. She told the little sister that she had seen the Wild Dog again peering through the bushes, and that she was frightened. That was her explanation--but I guessed a better one.
It was a day to make glad the heart of slave or freeman. The earth was cool from a night-long rain, and a gentle breeze fanned coolness from the north all day long. The clouds were snow-white, tumbling, ever-moving, and between them the sky showed blue and deep. Grass, leaf, weed and flower were in the richness that comes to the green things of the earth just before that full tide of summer whose foam is drifting thistle down. The air was clear and the mountains seemed to have brushed the haze from their faces and drawn nearer that they, too, might better see the doings of that day.
From the four winds of heaven, that morning, came the brave and the free. Up from Lee, down from Little Stone Gap, and from over in Scott, came the valley- farmers--horseback, in buggies, hacks, two-horse wagons, with wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts, in white dresses, flowered hats, and many ribbons, and with dinner-baskets stuffed with good things to eat--old ham, young chicken, angel-cake and blackberry wine--to be spread in the sunless shade of great poplar and oak. From Bum Hollow and Wildcat Valley and from up the slopes that lead to Cracker's Neck came smaller tillers of the soil--as yet but faintly marked by the gewgaw trappings of the outer world; while from beyond High Knob, whose crown is in cloud-land, and through the Gap, came the mountaineer in the primitive simplicity of home spun and cowhide, wide-brimmed hat and poke-bonnet, quaint speech, and slouching gait. Through the Gap he came in two streams--the Virginians from Crab Orchard and Wise and Dickinson, the Kentuckians from Letcher and feudal Harlan, beyond the Big Black--and not a man carried a weapon in sight, for the stern spirit of that Police Guard at the Gap was respected wide and far. Into the town, which sits on a plateau some twenty feet above the level of the two rivers that all but encircle it, they poured, hitching their horses in the strip of woods that runs through the heart of the place, and broad ens into a primeval park that, fan-like, opens on the oval level field where all things happen on the Fourth of July. About the street they loitered--lovers hand in hand--eating fruit and candy and drinking soda-water, or sat on the curb-stone, mothers with babies at their breasts and toddling children clinging close--all waiting for the celebration to begin.
It was a great day for the Hon. Samuel Budd. With a cheery smile and beaming goggles, he moved among his constituents, joking with yokels, saying nice things to mothers, paying gallantries to girls, and chucking babies under the chin. He felt popular and he was--so popular that he had begun to see himself with prophetic eye in a congressional seat at no distant day; and yet, withal, he was not wholly happy.
``Do you know,'' he said, ``them fellers I made bets with in the tournament got together this morning and decided, all of 'em, that they wouldn't let me off? Jerusalem, it's most five hundred dollars!'' And, looking the picture of dismay, he told me his dilemma. It seems that his ``dark horse'' was none other than the Wild Dog, who had been practising at home for this tournament for nearly a year; and now that the Wild Dog was an outlaw, he, of course, wouldn't and couldn't come to the Gap. And said the Hon. Sam Budd:
``Them fellers says I bet I'd BRING IN a dark horse who would win this tournament, and if I don't BRING him in, I lose just the same as though I had brought him in and he hadn't won. An' I reckon they've got me.''
``It would have been like pickin' money off a blackberry-bush, for I was goin' to let the Wild Dog have that black horse o' mine--the steadiest and fastest runner in this country--and my, how that fellow can pick off the rings! He's been a-practising for a year, and I believe he could run the point o' that spear of his through a lady's finger-ring.''