Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Late in August Uncle Eb and I took our Black Hawk stallion to the fair in HilIsborough and showed him for a prize. He was fit for the eye of a king when we had finished grooming him, that morning, and led him out, rearing in play, his eyes flashing from under his broad plume, so that all might have a last look at him. His arched neck and slim barrel glowed like satin as the sunlight fell upon him. His black mane flew, he shook the ground with his hoofs playing at the halter's end. He hated a harness and once in it lost half his conceit. But he was vainest of all things in Faraway when we drove off with him that morning.

All roads led to HilIsborough fair time. Up and down the long hills we went on a stiff jog passing lumber wagons with generations enough in them to make a respectable genealogy, the old people in chairs; light wagons that carried young men and their sweethearts, baclswoodsmen coming out in ancient vehicles upon reeling, creaking wheels to get food for a year's reflection - all thickening the haze of the late summer with the dust of the roads. And Hillsborough itself was black with people. The shouts of excited men, the neighing of horses, the bellowing of cattle, the wailing of infants, the howling of vendors, the pressing crowd, had begun to sow the seed of misery in the minds of those accustomed only to the peaceflil quietude of the farm. The staring eye, the palpitating heart, the aching head, were successive stages in the doom of many. The fair had its floral hall carpeted with sawdust and redolent of cedar, its dairy house, its mechanics' hall sacred to fiuming implements, its long sheds ftill of sheep and cattle, its dining-hall, its temporary booths of rough lumber, its half-mile track and grandstand. Here voices of beast and vendor mingied in a chorus of cupidity and distress. In Floral Hall Sol Rollin was on exhibition. He gave me a cold nod, his lips set for a tune as yet inaudible. He was surveying sundry examples of rustic art that hung on the circular railing of the gallery and tryingto preserve a calm breast. He was looking at Susan Baker's painted cow that hung near us.

'Very descriptive,' he said when I pressed him for his notion of it. 'Rod Baker's sister Susan made thet cow. Gits tew dollars an' fifty cents every fair time - wish I was dewin 's well.'

'That's one of the most profitable cows in this country,' I said.

'Looks a good deal like a new breed.'

'Yes,' he answered soberly, then he set his lips, threw a sweeping glance into the gallery, and passed on.

Susan Baker's cow was one of the permanent features of the county fair, and was indeed a curiosity not less remarkable than the sacred ox of Mr Bamum.

Here also I met a group of the pretty girls who had been my schoolmates. They surrounded me, chattering like magpies.

'There's going to be a dance at our house tonight,' said one of them, 'and you must come.'

'I cannot, I must go home,' I said.

'Of course!' said a red-cheeked saucy miss. 'The stuck-up thing! He wouldn't go anywhere unless he could have his sister with him.'

Then they went away laughing.

I found Ab Thomas at the rifle range. He was whittling as he considered a challenge from Tip Taylor to shoot a match. He turned and 'hefted' the rifle, silently, and then he squinted over the barrel two or three times.

'Dunno but what I'll try ye once,' he said presently, 'jes t' see.'

Once started they grew red in their faces and shot themselves weary in a reckless contest of skiIl and endurance. A great hulking fellow, half drunk and a bit quarrelsome, came up, presently, and endeavoured to help Ab hold his rifle. The latter brushed him away and said nothing for a moment. But every time he tried to take aim the man jostled him.

An looked up slowly and calmly, his eyebrows tilted for his aim, and said, 'Go off I tell ye.' Then he set himself and took aim again.

'Le'me hold it,' said the man, reaching for the barrel. 'Shoot better if I do the ainin'.' A laugh greeted this remark. Ab looked up again. There was a quick start in his great slouching figure.

'Take yer hand off o' thet,' he said a little louder than before.

The man, aching for more applause, grew more impertinent Ab quietly handed the rifle to its owner. Then something happened suddenly. It was so quickly over I am not quite sure of the order of business, but anyhow he seized the intruder by the shoulders flinging him down so heavily it knocked the dust out of the grass.

'A fight!' somebody shouted and men and boys came runing from all sides. We were locked in a pushing crowd before I could turn. The intruder lay stunned a moment. Then he rose, bare headed, his back covered with dust, pushed his way out and ran.

Ab turned quietly to the range.

'Hedn't orter t' come an' try t' dew my aimin',' he said mildly, by way of protest, 'I won't hev it.'

Then he enquired about the score and calmly took aim again. The stallion show came on that afternoon.

'They can't never beat thet hoss,' Uncle Eb had said to me.

''Fraid they will,' I answered. 'They're better hitched for one thing.'

'But they hain't got the ginger in 'em,' said he, 'er the git up 'n git. If we can show what's in him the Hawk'll beat 'em easy.'

If we won I was to get the prize but I had small hope of winning. When I saw one after another prance out, in sparkling silver harness adorned with rosettes of ribbon - light stepping, beautiful creatures all of them - I could see nothing but defeat for us. Indeed I could see we had been too confident. I dreaded the moment when Uncle Eb should drive down with Black Hawk in a plain leather harness, drawing a plainer buggy. I had planned to spend the prize money taking Hope to the harvest ball at Rickard's, and I had worked hard to put the Hawk in good fettle. I began to feel the bitterness of failure.

'Black Hawk! Where is Black Hawk?' said one of the judges loudly.

'Owned by David Brower o' Faraway,' said another looking at his card.

Where indeed was Uncle Eb? I got up on the fence and looked all about me anxiously. Then I heard a great cheering up the track. Somebody was coming down, at a rapid pace, riding a splendid moving animal, a knee rising to the nose at each powerful stride. His head and flying mane obscured the rider but I could see the end of a rope swinging in his hand. There was something familiar in the easy high stride of the horse. The cheers came on ahead of him like foam before a breaker. Upon my eyes! it was Black Hawk, with nothing but a plain rope halter on his head, and Uncle Eb riding him.

'G'lang there!' he shouted, swinging the halter stale to the shining flank. 'G'lang there!' and he went by, like a flash, the tail of Black Hawk straight out behind him, its end feathering in the wind. It was a splendid thing to see - that white-haired man, sitting erect on the flying animal, with only a rope halter in his hand. Every man about me was yelling. I swung my hat, shouting myself hoarse. When Uncle Eb came back the Hawk was walking quietly in a crowd of men and boys eager to feel his silken sides. I crowded through and held the horse's nose while Uncle Eb got down.

'Thought I wouldn't put no luther on him,' said Uncle Eb, 'God's gin' 'im a good 'nuff harness.'

The judges came and looked him over.

'Guess he'll win the prize all right,' said one of them.

And he did. When we came home that evening every horse on the road thought himself a trotter and went speeding to try his pace with everything that came up beside him. And many a man of Faraway, that we passed, sent up a shout of praise for the Black Hawk.

But I was thinking of Hope and the dance at Rickard's. I had plenty of money now and my next letter urged her to come home at once.