Dwellers in the Hills (Chapter 1, page 1 of 4)


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Chapter 1

I sat on the ground with my youthful legs tucked under me, and the bridle rein of El Mahdi over my arm, while I hammered a copper rivet into my broken stirrup strap. A little farther down the ridge Jud was idly swinging his great driving whip in long, snaky coils, flicking now a dry branch, and now a red autumn leaf from the clay road. The slim buckskin lash would dart out hissing, writhe an instant on the hammered road-bed, and snap back with a sharp, clear report.

The great sorrel was oblivious of this pastime of his master. The lash whistled narrowly by his red ears, but it never touched them. In the evening sunlight the Cardinal was a horse of bronze.

Opposite me in the shadow of the tall hickory timber the man Ump, doubled like a finger, was feeling tenderly over the coffin joints and the steel blue hoofs of the Bay Eagle, blowing away the dust from the clinch of each shoe-nail and pressing the flat calks with his thumb. No mother ever explored with more loving care the mouth of her child for evidence of a coming tooth. Ump was on his never-ending quest for the loose shoe-nail. It was the serious business of his life.

I think he loved this trim, nervous mare better than any other thing in the world. When he rode, perched like a monkey, with his thin legs held close to her sides, and his short, humped back doubled over, and his head with its long hair bobbing about as though his neck were loose-coupled somehow, he was eternally caressing her mighty withers, or feeling for the play of each iron tendon under her satin skin. And when we stopped, he glided down to finger her shoe-nails.

Then he talked to the mare sometimes, as he was doing now. "There is a little ridge in the hoof, girl, but it won't crack; I know it won't crack." And, "This nail is too high. It is my fault. I was gabbin' when old Hornick drove it."

On his feet, he looked like a clothes-pin with the face of the strangest old child. He might have been one left from the race of Dwarfs who, tradition said, lived in the Hills before we came.

His mare was the mother of El Mahdi. I remember how Ump cried when the colt was born, and how he sat out in the rain, a miserable drenched rat, because his dear Bay Eagle was in the mysterious troubles of maternity, and because she must be very unhappy at being on the north side of the hill among the black hawthorn bushes, for that was a bad sign--the worst sign in the world--showing the devil would have his day with the colt now and then.

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