“Why can’t I?” she demanded.
“Because I’m older now, and—and better, I hope. I shall never forget that you have a precious soul to save.”
Her response to this was a scoffing laugh, shrill and challenging. Yet he could not help thinking that it made her look prettier than before.
“You can laugh as much as you want to; but I mean it,” he insisted. “And, besides, Nan,—of all the things that I’ve been wanting to come back to, you’re the only one that isn’t changed.” And again he thought it was righteous guile that was making him kind to her.
In a twinkling the mocking hardness went out of her eyes and she leaned across the barrel mouth and touched his hand.
“D’you reckon you shorely mean that, Tom Gordon?” she said; and the lips which lent themselves so easily to scorn were tremulous. She was just his age, and womanhood was only a step across the threshold for her.
“Of course, I do. Let me carry your bucket for you.”
She had hung the little wooden piggin under the drip of the spring and it was full and running over. But when he had lifted it out for her, she rinsed and emptied it.
“I just set it there to cool some,” she explained. “I’m goin’ up to Sunday Rock afte’ huckleberries. Come and go ’long with me, Tom.”
He assented with a willingness as eager as it was unaccountable. If she had asked him to do a much less reasonable thing, he was not sure that he could have refused.
And as they went together through the wood, spicy with the June fragrances, questions like those of the boyhood time thronged on him, and he welcomed them as a return of at least one of the vanished thrills—and was grateful to her.
Why had he never before noticed that she was so much prettier than any other girl he had ever seen? What was there in the touch of her hand to make him feel like the iron in the forge fire—warm and glowing and putty-soft and yielding? Other girls were not that way. Only a half-hour since, Ardea Dabney had put her hand in his when she had said good-by, and that feeling was the kind you have when you have climbed through breathless summer woods to a high mountain top and the cool breeze blows through your hair and makes you quietly glad and lifted-up and satisfied.
These were questions to be buried deep in the secret places, and yet he had a curious eagerness to talk to Nan about them; to find out if she could understand. But he could not get near to any serious or confidential side of her. Her mood was playful, hilarious, daring. Once she ran squirrel-like out on the bole of a great tree leaning to its fall over the cliff, hung her piggin on a broken limb, and told him he must go after it. Next it was a squeeze through some “fat-man’s-misery” crevice in the water-worn sandstone, with a cry to him to come on if he were not a girl-boy. And when they were fairly under the overhanging cliff face of Sunday Rock, she darted away, laughing back at him over her shoulder, and daring him to follow her along a dizzy shelf half-way up the crag; a narrow ledge, perilous for a mountain goat.