Dwellers in the Hills (Chapter 5, page 1 of 5)


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Chapter 5

A spring of eternal youthfulness gushing somewhere under the bed of the mountains, was a dream of the Spanish Main, sought long and found not, as the legends run. But it is no dream that some of us carry our inheritance of youthfulness shoulder to shoulder with Eld into No Man's Country. Such an one was Simon Betts the waggon-maker.

I sat by his smouldering fire of shavings and hickory splinters, and wondered at the old man in the chimney corner. He was eighty, and yet his back was straight, his hair was scarcely grey, and his hands, resting on the arms of his huge wooden chair, were as unshrunken and powerful, it seemed to me, as the hands of any man of middle life.

Eighty! It was a tremendous hark back to that summer, long and long ago, when Simon came through the gap of the mountains into the Hills. The land was full of wonders then. The people of the copper faces prowled with the wolf and whooped along the Gauley. The Dwarfs lurked in the out-of-the-way corners of the mountains, trooping down in crooked droves to burn and kill for the very joy of doing evil. And who could say what unearthly thing went by when the wind shouted along the ridges? The folk then were but few in the Hills, and each busy with keeping the life in him. The land was good, broad waters and rich hill-tops, where the blue-grass grew though no man sowed it. A land made ready for a great people when it should come. With Simon came others from the south country, who felled the forest and let in the sunlight, and made wide pastures for the bullock, and so elbowed out the wandering and the evil.

High against the chimney, on two dogwood forks, rested the long rifle with its fishtail sight and the brass plate on the stock for the bullets and the "patching." Below it hung the old powder-horn, its wooden plug dangling from a string,--tools of the long ago. Closing one's eyes one could see the tall grandsires fighting in the beech forest, a brown patch of hide sighted over the brass knife-blade bead, and death, and to load again with the flat neck of the bullet set in the palm of the hand and covered with powder.

That yesterday was gone, but old Simon was doing with to-day. On two benches was a cart wheel, with its hickory spokes radiating like fingers from the locust hub, and on the floor were the mallet and the steel chisel with its tough oak handle. Stacked up in the corner were bundles of straight hickory, split from the butt of the great shell-bark log; round cuts of dry locust, and long timbers of white and red oak, and quarters of the tough sugars, seasoning, hard as iron. With these were the axe, the wedge, the dogwood gluts, and the mauls made with no little labour from the curled knots of the chestnut oak, and hooped with an iron tire-piece.

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