She gave her pinto to Joe and, standing at the door, welcomed me with a dignity and graciousness that made me think that The Duke was not far wrong when he named her "Princess."
The door opened upon the main or living room. It was a long, apartment, with low ceiling and walls of hewn logs chinked and plastered and all beautifully whitewashed and clean. The tables, chairs and benches were all home-made. On the floor were magnificent skins of wolf, bear, musk ox and mountain goat. The walls were decorated with heads and horns of deer and mountain sheep, eagles' wings and a beautiful breast of a loon, which Gwen had shot and of which she was very proud. At one end of the room a huge stone fireplace stood radiant in its summer decorations of ferns and grasses and wild-flowers. At the other end a door opened into another room, smaller and richly furnished with relics of former grandeur.
Everything was clean and well kept. Every nook, shelf and corner was decked with flowers and ferns from the canyon.
A strange house it was, full of curious contrasts, but it fitted this quaint child that welcomed me with such gracious courtesy.
GWEN'S FIRST PRAYERS
It was with hesitation, almost with fear, that I began with Gwen; but even had I been able to foresee the endless series of exasperations through which she was destined to conduct me, still would I have undertaken my task. For the child, with all her wilfulness, her tempers and her pride, made me, as she did all others, her willing slave.
Her lessons went on, brilliantly or not at all, according to her sweet will. She learned to read with extraordinary rapidity, for she was eager to know more of that great world of which The Duke had told her such thrilling tales. Writing she abhorred. She had no one to write to. Why should she cramp her fingers over these crooked little marks? But she mastered with hardly a struggle the mysteries of figures, for she would have to sell her cattle, and "dad doesn't know when they are cheating." Her ideas of education were purely utilitarian, and what did not appear immediately useful she refused to trifle with. And so all through the following long winter she vexed my righteous soul with her wilfulness and pride. An appeal to her father was idle. She would wind her long, thin arms about his neck and let her waving red hair float over him until the old man was quite helpless to exert authority. The Duke could do most with her. To please him she would struggle with her crooked letters for an hour at a time, but even his influence and authority had its limits.
"Must I?" she said one day, in answer to a demand of his for more faithful study; "must I?" And throwing up her proud little head, and shaking back with a trick she had her streaming red hair, she looked straight at him from her blue-gray eyes and asked the monosyllabic question, "Why?" And The Duke looked back at her with his slight smile for a few moments and then said in cold, even tones:
"I really don't know why," and turned his back on her. Immediately she sprang at him, shook him by the arm, and, quivering with passion, cried:
"You are not to speak to me like that, and you are not to turn your back that way!"
"What a little princess it is," he said admiringly, "and what a time she will give herself some day!" Then he added, smiling sadly: "Was I rude, Gwen? Then I am sorry." Her rage was gone, and she looked as if she could have held him by the feet. As it was, too proud to show her feelings, she just looked at him with softening eyes, and then sat down to the work she had refused. This was after the advent of The Pilot at Swan Creek, and, as The Duke rode home with me that night, after long musing he said with hesitation: "She ought to have some religion, poor child; she will grow up a perfect little devil. The Pilot might be of service if you could bring him up. Women need that sort of thing; it refines, you know."
"Would she have him?" I asked.
"Question," he replied, doubtfully. "You might suggest it."
Which I did, introducing somewhat clumsily, I fear, The Duke's name.
"The Duke says he is to make me good!" she cried. "I won't have him, I hate him and you too!" And for that day she disdained all lessons, and when The Duke next appeared she greeted him with the exclamation, "I won't have your old Pilot, and I don't want to be good, and—and—you think he's no good yourself," at which the Duke opened his eyes.
"How do you know? I never said so!"
"You laughed at him to dad one day."
"Did I?" said The Duke, gravely. "Then I hasten to assure, you that I have changed my mind. He is a good, brave man."
"He falls off his horse," she said, with contempt.
"I rather think he sticks on now," replied The Duke, repressing a smile.
"Besides," she went on, "he's just a kid; Bill said so."
"Well, he might be more ancient," acknowledged The Duke, "but in that he is steadily improving."
"Anyway," with an air of finality, "he is not to come here."
But he did come, and under her own escort, one threatening August evening.
"I found him in the creek," she announced, with defiant shamefacedness, marching in The Pilot half drowned.
"I think I could have crossed," he said, apologetically, "for Louis was getting on his feet again."
"No, you wouldn't," she protested. "You would have been down into the canyon by now, and you ought to be thankful."
"So I am," he hastened to say, "very! But," he added, unwilling to give up his contention, "I have crossed the Swan before."
"Not when it was in flood."
"Yes, when it was in flood, higher than now."
"Not where the banks are rocky."
"No-o!" he hesitated.
"There, then, you WOULD have been drowned but for my lariat!" she cried, triumphantly.
To this he doubtfully assented.
They were much alike, in high temper, in enthusiasm, in vivid imagination, and in sensitive feeling. When the Old Timer came in Gwen triumphantly introduced The Pilot as having been rescued from a watery grave by her lariat, and again they fought out the possibilities of drowning and of escape till Gwen almost lost her temper, and was appeased only by the most profuse expressions of gratitude on the part of The Pilot for her timely assistance. The Old Timer was perplexed. He was afraid to offend Gwen and yet unwilling to be cordial to her guest. The Pilot was quick to feel this, and, soon after tea, rose to go. Gwen's disappointment showed in her face.
"Ask him to stay, dad," she said, in a whisper. But the half-hearted invitation acted like a spur, and The Pilot was determined to set off.
"There's a bad storm coming," she said; "and besides," she added, triumphantly "you can't cross the Swan."
This settled it, and the most earnest prayers of the Old Timer could not have held him back.
We all went down to see him cross, Gwen leading her pinto. The Swan was far over its banks, and in the middle running swift and strong. Louis snorted, refused and finally plunged. Bravely he swam, till the swift-running water struck him, and over he went on his side, throwing his rider into the water. But The Pilot kept his head, and, holding by the stirrups, paddled along by Louis' side. When they were half-way across Louis saw that he had no chance of making the landing; so, like a sensible horse, he turned and made for the shore. Here, too, the banks were high, and the pony began to grow discouraged.
"Let him float down further!" shrieked Gwen, in anxious excitement; and, urging her pinto down the bank, she coaxed the struggling pony down the stream till opposite a shelf of rock level with the high water. Then she threw her lariat, and, catching Louis about the neck and the horn of his saddle, she held taut, till, half drowned, he scrambled up the bank, dragging The Pilot with him.
"Oh, I'm so glad!" she said, almost tearfully. "You see, you couldn't get across."
The Pilot staggered to his feet, took a step toward her, gasped out:
"I can!" and pitched headlong. With a little cry she flew to him, and turned him over on his back. In a few moments he revived, sat up, and looked about stupidly.
"Where's Louis?" he said, with his face toward the swollen stream.
"Safe enough," she answered; "but you must come in, the rain is just going to pour."
But The Pilot seemed possessed.
"No, I'm going across," he said, rising.
Gwen was greatly distressed.
"But your poor horse," she said, cleverly changing her ground; "he is quite tired out."
The Old Timer now joined earnestly in urging him to stay till the storm was past. So, with a final look at the stream, The Pilot turned toward the house.
Of course I knew what would happen. Before the evening was over he had captured the household. The moment he appeared with dry things on he ran to the organ, that had stood for ten years closed and silent, opened it and began to play. As he played and sang song after song, the Old Timer's eyes began to glisten under his shaggy brows. But when he dropped into the exquisite Irish melody, "Oft in the Stilly Night," the old man drew a hard breath and groaned out to me:
"It was her mother's song," and from that time The Pilot had him fast. It was easy to pass to the old hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and then The Pilot said simply, "May we have prayers?" He looked at Gwen, but she gazed blankly at him and then at her father.
"What does he say, dad?"
It was pitiful to see the old man's face grow slowly red under the deep tan, as he said:
"You may, sir. There's been none here for many years, and the worse for us." He rose slowly, went into the inner room and returned with a Bible.
"It's her mother's," he said, in a voice deep with emotion. "I put it in her trunk the day I laid her out yonder under the pines." The Pilot, without looking at him, rose and reverently took the book in both his hands and said gently:
"It was a sad day for you, but for her—" He paused. "You did not grudge it to her?"
"Not now, but then, yes! I wanted her, we needed her." The Old Timer's tears were flowing.
The Pilot put his hand caressingly upon the old man's shoulder as if he had been his father, and said in his clear, sweet voice, "Some day you will go to her."
Upon this scene poor Gwen gazed with eyes wide open with amazement and a kind of fear. She had never seen her father weep since the awful day that she could never forget, when he had knelt in dumb agony beside the bed on which her mother lay white and still; nor would he heed her till, climbing up, she tried to make her mother waken and hear her cries. Then he had caught her up in his arms, pressing her with tears and great sobs to his heart. To-night she seemed to feel that something was wrong. She went and stood by her father, and, stroking his gray hair kindly, she said:
"What is he saying, daddy? Is he making you cry?" She looked at The Pilot defiantly.
"No, no, child," said the old man, hastily, "sit here and listen."
And while the storm raved outside we three sat listening to that ancient story of love ineffable. And, as the words fell like sweet music upon our ears, the old man sat with eyes that looked far away, while the child listened with devouring eagerness.
"Is it a fairy tale, daddy?" she asked, as The Pilot paused. "It isn't true, is it?" and her voice had a pleading note hard for the old man to bear.
"Yes, yes, my child," said he, brokenly. "God forgive me!"
"Of course it's true," said The Pilot, quickly. "I'll read it all to you to-morrow. It's a beautiful story!"
"No," she said, imperiously, "to-night. Read it now! Go on!" she said, stamping her foot, "don't you hear me?"
The Pilot gazed in surprise at her, and then turning to the old man, said:
The Old Timer simply nodded and the reading went on. Those were not my best days, and the faith of my childhood was not as it had been; but, as The Pilot carried us through those matchless scenes of self-forgetting love and service the rapt wonder in the child's face as she listened, the appeal in her voice as, now to her father, and now to me, she cried: "Is THAT true, too? Is it ALL true?" made it impossible for me to hesitate in my answer. And I was glad to find it easy to give my firm adherence to the truth of all that tale of wonder. And, as more and more it grew upon The Pilot that the story he was reading, so old to him and to all he had ever met, was new to one in that listening group, his face began to glow and his eyes to blaze, and he saw and showed me things that night I had never seen before, nor have I seen them since. The great figure of the Gospels lived, moved before our eyes. We saw Him bend to touch the blind, we heard Him speak His marvellous teaching, we felt the throbbing excitement of the crowds that pressed against Him.
Suddenly The Pilot stopped, turned over the leaves and began again: "And He led them out as far as to Bethany. And He lifted up His hands and blessed them. And it came to pass as He blessed them He was parted from them and a cloud received Him out of their sight." There was silence for some minutes, then Gwen said:
"Where did He go?"
"Up into Heaven," answered The Pilot, simply.
"That's where mother is," she said to her father, who nodded in reply.
"Does He know?" she asked. The old man looked distressed.
"Of course He does," said The Pilot, "and she sees Him all the time."
"Oh, daddy!" she cried, "isn't that good?"
But the old man only hid his face in his hands and groaned.
"Yes," went on The Pilot, "and He sees us, too, and hears us speak, and knows our thoughts."
Again the look of wonder and fear came into her eyes, but she said no word. The experiences of the evening had made the world new to her. It could never be the same to her again. It gave me a queer feeling to see her, when we three kneeled to pray, stand helplessly looking on, not knowing what to do, then sink beside her father, and, winding her arms about his neck, cling to him as the words of prayer were spoken into the ear of Him whom no man can see, but who we believe is near to all that call upon Him.
Those were Gwen's first "prayers," and in them Gwen's part was small, for fear and wonder filled her heart; but the day was to come, and all too soon, when she should have to pour out her soul with strong crying and tears. That day came and passed, but the story of it is not to be told here.
Gwen was undoubtedly wild and, as The Sky Pilot said, wilful and wicked. Even Bronco Bill and Hi Kendal would say so, without, of course, abating one jot of their admiration for her. For fourteen years she had lived chiefly with wild things. The cattle on the range, wild as deer, the coyotes, the jack-rabbits and the timber wolves were her mates and her instructors. From these she learned her wild ways. The rolling prairie of the Foothill country was her home. She loved it and all things that moved upon it with passionate love, the only kind she was capable of. And all summer long she spent her days riding up and down the range alone, or with her father, or with Joe, or, best of all, with The Duke, her hero and her friend. So she grew up strong, wholesome and self-reliant, fearing nothing alive and as untamed as a yearling range colt.
She was not beautiful. The winds and sun had left her no complexion to speak of, but the glory of her red hair, gold-red, with purple sheen, nothing could tarnish. Her eyes, too, deep blue with rims of gray, that flashed with the glint of steel or shone with melting light as of the stars, according to her mood—those Irish, warm, deep eyes of hers were worth a man's looking at.
Of course, all spoiled her. Ponka and her son Joe grovelled in abjectest adoration, while her father and all who came within touch of her simply did her will. Even The Duke, who loved her better than anything else, yielded lazy, admiring homage to his Little Princess, and certainly, when she stood straight up with her proud little gold-crowned head thrown back, flashing forth wrath or issuing imperious commands, she looked a princess, all of her.
It was a great day and a good day for her when she fished The Sky Pilot out of the Swan and brought him home, and the night of Gwen's first "prayers," when she heard for the first time the story of the Man of Nazareth, was the best of all her nights up to that time. All through the winter, under The Pilot's guidance, she, with her father, the Old Timer, listening near, went over and over that story so old now to many, but ever becoming new, till a whole new world of mysterious Powers and Presences lay open to her imagination and became the home of great realities. She was rich in imagination and, when The Pilot read Bunyan's immortal poem, her mother's old "Pilgrim's Progress," she moved and lived beside the hero of that tale, backing him up in his fights and consumed with anxiety over his many impending perils, till she had him safely across the river and delivered into the charge of the shining ones.
The Pilot himself, too, was a new and wholesome experience. He was the first thing she had yet encountered that refused submission, and the first human being that had failed to fall down and worship. There was something in him that would not ALWAYS yield, and, indeed, her pride and her imperious tempers he met with surprise and sometimes with a pity that verged toward contempt. With this she was not well pleased and not infrequently she broke forth upon him. One of these outbursts is stamped upon my mind, not only because of its unusual violence, but chiefly because of the events which followed. The original cause of her rage was some trifling misdeed of the unfortunate Joe; but when I came upon the scene it was The Pilot who was occupying her attention. The expression of surprise and pity on his face appeared to stir her up.
"How dare you look at me like that?" she cried.
"How very extraordinary that you can't keep hold of yourself better!" he answered.
"I can!" she stamped, "and I shall do as I like!"
"It is a great pity," he said, with provoking calm, "and besides, it is weak and silly." His words were unfortunate.
"Weak!" she gasped, when her breath came back to her. "Weak!"
"Yes," he said, "very weak and childish."
Then she could have cheerfully put him to a slow and cruel death. When she had recovered a little she cried vehemently:
"I'm not weak! I'm strong! I'm stronger than you are! I'm strong as—as—a man!"
I do not suppose she meant the insinuation; at any rate The Pilot ignored it and went on.
"You're not strong enough to keep your temper down." And then, as she had no reply ready, he went on, "And really, Gwen, it is not right. You must not go on in this way."
Again his words were unfortunate.
"MUST NOT!" she cried, adding an inch to her height. "Who says so?"
"God!" was the simple, short answer.
She was greatly taken back, and gave a quick glance over her shoulder as if to see Him, who would dare to say MUST NOT to her; but, recovering, she answered sullenly:
"I don't care!"
"Don't care for God?" The Pilot's voice was quiet and solemn, but something in his manner angered her, and she blazed forth again.
"I don't care for anyone, and I SHALL do as I like."
The Pilot looked at her sadly for a moment, and then said slowly:
"Some day, Gwen, you will not be able to do as you like."
I remember well the settled defiance in her tone and manner as she took a step nearer him and answered in a voice trembling with passion:
"Listen! I have always done as I like, and I shall do as I like till I die!" And she rushed forth from the house and down toward the canyon, her refuge from all disturbing things, and chiefly from herself.
I could not shake off the impression her words made upon me. "Pretty direct, that," I said to The Pilot, as we rode away. "The declaration may be philosophically correct, but it rings uncommonly like a challenge to the Almighty. Throws down the gauntlet, so to speak."
But The Pilot only said, "Don't! How can you?"
Within a week her challenge was accepted, and how fiercely and how gallantly did she struggle to make it good!
It was The Duke that brought me the news, and as he told me the story his gay, careless self-command for once was gone. For in the gloom of the canyon where he overtook me I could see his face gleaming out ghastly white, and even his iron nerve could not keep the tremor from his voice.
"I've just sent up the doctor," was his answer to my greeting. "I looked for you last night, couldn't find you, and so rode off to the Fort."
"What's up?" I said, with fear in my heart, for no light thing moved The Duke.
"Haven't you heard? It's Gwen," he said, and the next minute or two he gave to Jingo, who was indulging in a series of unexpected plunges. When Jingo was brought down, The Duke was master of himself and told his tale with careful self-control.
Gwen, on her father's buckskin bronco, had gone with The Duke to the big plain above the cut-bank where Joe was herding the cattle. The day was hot and a storm was in the air. They found Joe riding up and down, singing to keep the cattle quiet, but having a hard time to hold the bunch from breaking. While The Duke was riding around the far side of the bunch, a cry from Gwen arrested his attention. Joe was in trouble. His horse, a half-broken cayuse, had stumbled into a badger-hole and had bolted, leaving Joe to the mercy of the cattle. At once they began to sniff suspiciously at this phenomenon, a man on foot, and to follow cautiously on his track. Joe kept his head and walked slowly out, till all at once a young cow began to bawl and to paw the ground. In another minute one, and then another of the cattle began to toss their heads and bunch and bellow till the whole herd of two hundred were after Joe. Then Joe lost his head and ran. Immediately the whole herd broke into a thundering gallop with heads and tails aloft and horns rattling like the loading of a regiment of rifles.
"Two more minutes," said The Duke, "would have done for Joe, for I could never have reached him; but, in spite of my most frantic warnings and signalings, right into the face of that mad, bellowing, thundering mass of steers rode that little girl. Nerve! I have some myself, but I couldn't have done it. She swung her horse round Joe and sailed out with him, with the herd bellowing at the tail of her bronco. I've seen some cavalry things in my day, but for sheer cool bravery nothing touches that."
"How did it end? Did they run them down?" I asked, with terror at such a result.
"No, they crowded her toward the cut-bank, and she was edging them off and was almost past, when they came to a place where the bank bit in, and her iron-mouthed brute wouldn't swerve, but went pounding on, broke through, plunged; she couldn't spring free because of Joe, and pitched headlong over the bank, while the cattle went thundering past. I flung myself off Jingo and slid down somehow into the sand, thirty feet below. Here was Joe safe enough, but the bronco lay with a broken leg, and half under him was Gwen. She hardly knew she was hurt, but waved her hand to me and cried out, 'Wasn't that a race? I couldn't swing this hard-headed brute. Get me out.' But even as she spoke the light faded from her eyes, she stretched out her hands to me, saying faintly, 'Oh, Duke,' and lay back white and still. We put a bullet into the buckskin's head, and carried her home in our jackets, and there she lies without a sound from her poor, white lips."
The Duke was badly cut up. I had never seen him show any sign of grief before, but as he finished the story he stood ghastly and shaking. He read my surprise in my face and said:
"Look here, old chap, don't think me quite a fool. You can't know what that little girl has done for me these years. Her trust in me—it is extraordinary how utterly she trusts me—somehow held me up to my best and back from perdition. It is the one bright spot in my life in this blessed country. Everyone else thinks me a pleasant or unpleasant kind of fiend."
I protested rather faintly.
"Oh, don't worry your conscience," he answered, with a slight return of his old smile, "a fuller knowledge would only justify the opinion." Then, after a pause, he added: "But if Gwen goes, I must pull out, I could not stand it."
As we rode up, the doctor came out.
"Well, what do you think?" asked The Duke.
"Can't say yet," replied the old doctor, gruff with long army practice, "bad enough. Good night."
But The Duke's hand fell upon his shoulder with a grip that must have got to the bone, and in a husky voice he asked:
"Will she live?"
The doctor squirmed, but could not shake off that crushing grip.
"Here, you young tiger, let go! What do you think I am made of?" he cried, angrily. "I didn't suppose I was coming to a bear's den, or I should have brought a gun."
It was only by the most complete apology that The Duke could mollify the old doctor sufficiently to get his opinion.
"No, she will not die! Great bit of stuff! Better she should die, perhaps! But can't say yet for two weeks. Now remember," he added sharply, looking into The Duke's woe-stricken face, "her spirits must be kept up. I have lied most fully and cheerfully to them inside; you must do the same," and the doctor strode away, calling out:
"Joe! Here, Joe! Where is he gone? Joe, I say! Extraordinary selection Providence makes at times; we could have spared that lazy half-breed with pleasure! Joe! Oh, here you are! Where in thunder—" But here the doctor stopped abruptly. The agony in the dark face before him was too much even for the bluff doctor. Straight and stiff Joe stood by the horse's head till the doctor had mounted, then with a great effort he said:
"Little miss, she go dead?"
"Dead!" called out the doctor, glancing at the open window. "Why, bless your old copper carcass, no! Gwen will show you yet how to rope a steer."
Joe took a step nearer, and lowering his tone said:
"You speak me true? Me man, Me no papoose." The piercing black eyes searched the doctor's face. The doctor hesitated a moment, and then, with an air of great candor, said cheerily:
"That's all right, Joe. Miss Gwen will cut circles round your old cayuse yet. But remember," and the doctor was very impressive, "you must make her laugh every day."
Joe folded his arms across his breast and stood like a statue till the doctor rode away; then turning to us he grunted out:
"Him good man, eh?"
"Good man," answered The Duke, adding, "but remember, Joe, what he told you to do. Must make her laugh every day."
Poor Joe! Humor was not his forte, and his attempt in this direction in the weeks that followed would have been humorous were they not so pathetic. How I did my part I cannot tell. Those weeks are to me now like the memory of an ugly nightmare. The ghostly old man moving out and in of his little daughter's room in useless, dumb agony; Ponka's woe-stricken Indian face; Joe's extraordinary and unusual but loyal attempts at fun-making grotesquely sad, and The Duke's unvarying and invincible cheeriness; these furnish light and shade for the picture my memory brings me of Gwen in those days.
For the first two weeks she was simply heroic. She bore her pain without a groan, submitted to the imprisonment which was harder than pain with angelic patience. Joe, The Duke and I carried out our instructions with careful exactness to the letter. She never doubted, and we never let her doubt but that in a few weeks she would be on the pinto's back again and after the cattle. She made us pass our word for this till it seemed as if she must have read the falsehoods on our brows.
"To lie cheerfully with her eyes upon one's face calls for more than I possess," said The Duke one day. "The doctor should supply us tonics. It is an arduous task."
And she believed us absolutely, and made plans for the fall "round-up," and for hunts and rides till one's heart grew sick. As to the ethical problem involved, I decline to express an opinion, but we had no need to wait for our punishment. Her trust in us, her eager and confident expectation of the return of her happy, free, outdoor life; these brought to us, who knew how vain they were, their own adequate punishment for every false assurance we gave. And how bright and brave she was those first days! How resolute to get back to the world of air and light outside!
But she had need of all her brightness and courage and resolution before she was done with her long fight.
Gwen's hope and bright courage, in spite of all her pain, were wonderful to witness. But all this cheery hope and courage and patience snuffed out as a candle, leaving noisome darkness to settle down in that sick-room from the day of the doctor's consultation.
The verdict was clear and final. The old doctor, who loved Gwen as his own, was inclined to hope against hope, but Fawcett, the clever young doctor from the distant town, was positive in his opinion. The scene is clear to me now, after many years. We three stood in the outer room; The Duke and her father were with Gwen. So earnest was the discussion that none of us heard the door open just as young Fawcett was saying in incisive tones:
"No! I can see no hope. The child can never walk again."
There was a cry behind us.
"What! Never walk again! It's a lie!" There stood the Old Timer, white, fierce, shaking.
"Hush!" said the old doctor, pointing at the open door. He was too late. Even as he spoke, there came from the inner room a wild, unearthly cry as of some dying thing and, as we stood gazing at one another with awe-stricken faces, we heard Gwen's voice as in quick, sharp pain.
"Daddy! daddy! come! What do they say? Tell me, daddy. It is not true! It is not true! Look at me, daddy!"
She pulled up her father's haggard face from the bed.
"Oh, daddy, daddy, you know it's true. Never walk again!"
She turned with a pitiful cry to The Duke, who stood white and stiff with arms drawn tight across his breast on the other side of the bed.
"Oh, Duke, did you hear them? You told me to be brave, and I tried not to cry when they hurt me. But I can't be brave! Can I, Duke? Oh, Duke! Never to ride again!"
She stretched out her hands to him. But The Duke, leaning over her and holding her hands fast in his, could only say brokenly over and over: "Don't, Gwen! Don't, Gwen dear!"
But the pitiful, pleading voice went on.
"Oh, Duke! Must I always lie here? Must, I? Why must I?"
"God knows," answered The Duke bitterly, under his breath, "I don't!"
She caught at the word.
"Does He?" she cried, eagerly. Then she paused suddenly, turned to me and said: "Do you remember he said some day I could not do as I liked?"
I was puzzled.
"The Pilot," she cried, impatiently, "don't you remember? And I said I should do as I liked till I died."
I nodded my head and said: "But you know you didn't mean it."
"But I did, and I do," she cried, with passionate vehemence, "and I will do as I like! I will not lie here! I will ride! I will! I will! I will!" and she struggled up, clenched her fists, and sank back faint and weak. It was not a pleasant sight, but gruesome. Her rage against that Unseen Omnipotence was so defiant and so helpless.
Those were dreadful weeks to Gwen and to all about her. The constant pain could not break her proud spirit; she shed no tears; but she fretted and chafed and grew more imperiously exacting every day. Ponka and Joe she drove like a slave master, and even her father, when he could not understand her wishes, she impatiently banished from her room. Only The Duke could please or bring her any cheer, and even The Duke began to feel that the day was not far off when he, too, would fail, and the thought made him despair. Her pain was hard to bear, but harder than the pain was her longing for the open air and the free, flower-strewn, breeze-swept prairie. But most pitiful of all were the days when, in her utter weariness and uncontrollable unrest, she would pray to be taken down into the canyon.
"Oh, it is so cool and shady," she would plead, "and the flowers up in the rocks and the vines and things are all so lovely. I am always better there. I know I should be better," till The Duke would be distracted and would come to me and wonder what the end would be.
One day, when the strain had been more terrible than usual, The Duke rode down to me and said:
"Look here, this thing can't go on. Where is The Pilot gone? Why doesn't he stay where he belongs? I wish to Heaven he would get through with his absurd rambling."
"He's gone where he was sent," I replied shortly. "You don't set much store by him when he does come round. He is gone on an exploring trip through the Dog Lake country. He'll be back by the end of next week."
"I say, bring him up, for Heaven's sake," said The Duke, "he may be of some use, and anyway it will be a new face for her, poor child." Then he added, rather penitently: "I fear this thing is getting on to my nerves. She almost drove me out to-day. Don't lay it up against me, old chap."
It was a new thing to hear The Duke confess his need of any man, much less penitence for a fault. I felt my eyes growing dim, but I said, roughly:
"You be hanged! I'll bring The Pilot up when he comes."
It was wonderful how we had all come to confide in The Pilot during his year of missionary work among us. Somehow the cowboy's name of "Sky Pilot" seemed to express better than anything else the place he held with us. Certain it is, that when, in their dark hours, any of the fellows felt in need of help to strike the "upward trail," they went to The Pilot; and so the name first given in chaff came to be the name that expressed most truly the deep and tender feeling these rough, big-hearted men cherished for him. When The Pilot came home I carefully prepared him for his trial, telling all that Gwen had suffered and striving to make him feel how desperate was her case when even The Duke had to confess himself beaten. He did not seem sufficiently impressed. Then I pictured for him all her fierce wilfulness and her fretful humors, her impatience with those who loved her and were wearing out their souls and bodies for her. "In short," I concluded, "she doesn't care a rush for anything in heaven or earth, and will yield to neither man nor God."
The Pilot's eyes had been kindling as I talked, but he only answered, quietly:
"What could you expect?"
"Well, I do think she might show some signs of gratitude and some gentleness towards those ready to die for her."
"Oh, you do!" said he, with high scorn. "You all combine to ruin her temper and disposition with foolish flattery and weak yielding to her whims, right or wrong; you smile at her imperious pride and encourage her wilfulness, and then not only wonder at the results, but blame her, poor child, for all. Oh, you are a fine lot, The Duke and all of you!"
He had a most exasperating ability for putting one in the wrong, and I could only think of the proper and sufficient reply long after the opportunity for making it had passed. I wondered what The Duke would say to this doctrine. All the following day, which was Sunday, I could see that Gwen was on The Pilot's mind. He was struggling with the problem of pain.
Monday morning found us on the way to the Old Timer's ranch. And what a morning it was! How beautiful our world seemed! About us rolled the round-topped, velvet hills, brown and yellow or faintly green, spreading out behind us to the broad prairie, and before, clambering up and up to meet the purple bases of the great mountains that lay their mighty length along the horizon and thrust up white, sunlit peaks into the blue sky. On the hillsides and down in the sheltering hollows we could see the bunches of cattle and horses feeding upon the rich grasses. High above, the sky, cloudless and blue, arched its great kindly roof from prairie to mountain peaks, and over all, above, below, upon prairie, hillsides and mountains, the sun poured his floods of radiant yellow light.
As we followed the trail that wound up and into the heart of these rounded hills and ever nearer to the purple mountains, the morning breeze swept down to meet us, bearing a thousand scents, and filling us with its own fresh life. One can know the quickening joyousness of these Foothill breezes only after he has drunk with wide-open mouth, deep and full of them.
Through all this mingling beauty of sunlit hills and shady hollows and purple, snow-peaked mountains, we rode with hardly a word, every minute adding to our heart-filling delight, but ever with the thought of the little room where, shut in from all this outside glory, lay Gwen, heart-sore with fretting and longing. This must have been in The Pilot's mind, for he suddenly held up his horse and burst out:
"Poor Gwen, how she loves all this!—it is her very life. How can she help fretting the heart out of her? To see this no more!" He flung himself off his bronco and said, as if thinking aloud: "It is too awful! Oh, it is cruel! I don't wonder at her! God help me, what can I say to her?"
He threw himself down upon the grass and turned over on his face. After a few minutes he appealed to me, and his face was sorely troubled.
"How can one go to her? It seems to me sheerest mockery to speak of patience and submission to a wild young thing from whom all this is suddenly snatched forever—and this was very life to her, too, remember."
Then he sprang up and we rode hard for an hour, till we came to the mouth of the canyon. Here the trail grew difficult and we came to a walk. As we went down into the cool depths the spirit of the canyon came to meet us and took The Pilot in its grip. He rode in front, feasting his eyes on all the wonders in that storehouse of beauty. Trees of many kinds deepened the shadows of the canyon. Over us waved the big elms that grew up here and there out of the bottom, and around their feet clustered low cedars and hemlocks and balsams, while the sturdy, rugged oaks and delicate, trembling poplars clung to the rocky sides and clambered up and out to the canyon's sunny lips. Back of all, the great black rocks, decked with mossy bits and clinging things, glistened cool and moist between the parting trees. From many an oozy nook the dainty clematis and columbine shook out their bells, and, lower down, from beds of many-colored moss the late wind-flower and maiden-hair and tiny violet lifted up brave, sweet faces. And through the canyon the Little Swan sang its song to rocks and flowers and overhanging trees, a song of many tones, deep-booming where it took its first sheer plunge, gay-chattering where it threw itself down the ragged rocks, and soft-murmuring where it lingered about the roots of the loving, listening elms. A cool, sweet, soothing place it was, with all its shades and sounds and silences, and, lest it should be sad to any, the sharp, quick sunbeams danced and laughed down through all its leaves upon mosses, flowers and rocks. No wonder that The Pilot, drawing a deep breath as he touched the prairie sod again, said:
"That does me good. It is better at times even than the sunny hills. This was Gwen's best spot."
I saw that the canyon had done its work with him. His face was strong and calm as the hills on a summer morning, and with this face he looked in upon Gwen. It was one of her bad days and one of her bad moods, but like a summer breeze he burst into the little room.
"Oh, Gwen!" he cried, without a word of greeting, much less of Commiseration, "we have had such a ride!" And he spread out the sunlit, round-topped hills before her, till I could feel their very breezes in my face. This The Duke had never dared to do, fearing to grieve her with pictures of what she should look upon no more. But, as The Pilot talked, before she knew, Gwen was out again upon her beloved hills, breathing their fresh, sunny air, filling her heart with their multitudinous delights, till her eyes grew bright and the lines of fretting smoothed out of her face and she forgot her pain. Then, before she could remember, he had her down into the canyon, feasting her heart with its airs and sights and sounds. The black, glistening rocks, tricked out with moss and trailing vines, the great elms and low green cedars, the oaks and shivering poplars, the clematis and columbine hanging from the rocky nooks, and the violets and maiden-hair deep bedded in their mosses. All this and far more he showed her with a touch so light as not to shake the morning dew from bell or leaf or frond, and with a voice so soft and full of music as to fill our hearts with the canyon's mingling sounds, and, as I looked upon her face, I said to myself: "Dear old Pilot! for this I shall always love you well." As poor Gwen listened, the rapture of it drew the big tears down her cheeks—alas! no longer brown, but white, and for that day at least the dull, dead weariness was lifted from her heart.
THE CANYON FLOWERS
The Pilot's first visit to Gwen had been a triumph. But none knew better than he that the fight was still to come, for deep in Gwen's heart were thoughts whose pain made her forget all other.
"Was it God let me fall?" she asked abruptly one day, and The Pilot knew the fight was on; but he only answered, looking fearlessly into her eyes:
"Yes, Gwen dear."
"Why did He let me fall?" and her voice was very deliberate.
"I don't know, Gwen dear," said The Pilot steadily. "He knows."
"And does He know I shall never ride again? Does He know how long the days are, and the nights when I can't sleep? Does He know?"
"Yes, Gwen dear," said The Pilot, and the tears were standing in his eyes, though his voice was still steady enough.
"Are you sure He knows?" The voice was painfully intense.
"Listen to me, Gwen," began The Pilot, in great distress, but she cut him short.
"Are you quite sure He knows? Answer me!" she cried, with her old imperiousness.
"Yes, Gwen, He knows all about you."
"Then what do you think of Him, just because He's big and strong, treating a little girl that way?" Then she added, viciously: "I hate Him! I don't care! I hate Him!"
But The Pilot did not wince. I wondered how he would solve that problem that was puzzling, not only Gwen, but her father and The Duke, and all of us—the WHY of human pain.
"Gwen," said The Pilot, as if changing the subject, "did it hurt to put on the plaster jacket?"
"You just bet!" said Gwen, lapsing in her English, as The Duke was not present; "it was worse than anything—awful! They had to straighten me out, you know," and she shuddered at the memory of that pain.
"What a pity your father or The Duke was not here!" said The Pilot, earnestly.
"Why, they were both here!"
"What a cruel shame!" burst out The Pilot. "Don't they care for you any more?"
"Of course they do," said Gwen, indignantly.
"Why didn't they stop the doctors from hurting you so cruelly?"
"Why, they let the doctors. It is going to help me to sit up and perhaps to walk about a little," answered Gwen, with blue-gray eyes open wide.
"Oh," said The Pilot, "it was very mean to stand by and see you hurt like that."
"Why, you silly," replied Owen, impatiently, "they want my back to get straight and strong."
"Oh, then they didn't do it just for fun or for nothing?" said The Pilot, innocently.
Gwen gazed at him in amazed and speechless wrath, and he went on:
"I mean they love you though they let you be hurt; or rather they let the doctors hurt you BECAUSE they loved you and wanted to make you better."
Gwen kept her eyes fixed with curious earnestness upon his face till the light began to dawn.
"Do you mean," she began slowly, "that though God let me fall, He loves me?"
The Pilot nodded; he could not trust his voice.
"I wonder if that can be true," she said, as if to herself; and soon we said good-by and came away—The Pilot, limp and voiceless, but I triumphant, for I began to see a little light for Gwen.
But the fight was by no means over; indeed, it was hardly well begun. For when the autumn came, with its misty, purple days, most glorious of all days in the cattle country, the old restlessness came back and the fierce refusal of her lot. Then came the day of the round-up. Why should she have to stay while all went after the cattle? The Duke would have remained, but she impatiently sent him away. She was weary and heart-sick, and, worst of all, she began to feel that most terrible of burdens, the burden of her life to others. I was much relieved when The Pilot came in fresh and bright, waving a bunch of wild-flowers in his hand.
"I thought they were all gone," he cried. "Where do you think I found them? Right down by the big elm root," and, though he saw by the settled gloom of her face that the storm was coming, he went bravely on picturing the canyon in all the splendor of its autumn dress. But the spell would not work. Her heart was out on the sloping hills, where the cattle were bunching and crowding with tossing heads and rattling horns, and it was in a voice very bitter and impatient that she cried:
"Oh, I am sick of all this! I want to ride! I want to see the cattle and the men and—and—and all the things outside." The Pilot was cowboy enough to know the longing that tugged at her heart for one wild race after the calves or steers, but he could only say:
"Wait, Gwen. Try to be patient."
"I am patient; at least I have been patient for two whole months, and it's no use, and I don't believe God cares one bit!"
"Yes, He does, Gwen, more than any of us," replied The Pilot, earnestly.
"No, He does not care," she answered, with angry emphasis, and The Pilot made no reply.
"Perhaps," she went on, hesitatingly, "He's angry because I said I didn't care for Him, you remember? That was very wicked. But don't you think I'm punished nearly enough now? You made me very angry, and I didn't really mean it."
Poor Gwen! God had grown to be very real to her during these weeks of pain, and very terrible. The Pilot looked down a moment into the blue-gray eyes, grown so big and so pitiful, and hurriedly dropping on his knees beside the bed he said, in a very unsteady voice:
"Oh, Gwen, Gwen, He's not like that. Don't you remember how Jesus was with the poor sick people? That's what He's like."
"Could Jesus make me well?"
"Then why doesn't He?" she asked; and there was no impatience now, but only trembling anxiety as she went on in a timid voice: "I asked Him to, over and over, and said I would wait two months, and now it's more than three. Are you quite sure He hears now?" She raised herself on her elbow and gazed searchingly into The Pilot's face. I was glad it was not into mine. As she uttered the words, "Are you quite sure?" one felt that things were in the balance. I could not help looking at The Pilot with intense anxiety. What would he answer? The Pilot gazed out of the window upon the hills for a few moments. How long the silence seemed! Then, turning, looked into the eyes that searched his so steadily and answered simply:
"Yes, Gwen, I am quite sure!" Then, with quick inspiration, he got her mother's Bible and said: "Now, Gwen, try to see it as I read." But, before he read, with the true artist's instinct he created the proper atmosphere. By a few vivid words he made us feel the pathetic loneliness of the Man of Sorrows in His last sad days. Then he read that masterpiece of all tragic picturing, the story of Gethsemane. And as he read we saw it all. The garden and the trees and the sorrow-stricken Man alone with His mysterious agony. We heard the prayer so pathetically submissive and then, for answer, the rabble and the traitor.
Gwen was far too quick to need explanation, and The Pilot only said, "You see, Gwen, God gave nothing but the best—to His own Son only the best."
"The best? They took Him away, didn't they?" She knew the story well.
"Yes, but listen." He turned the leaves rapidly and read: "'We see Jesus for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor.' That is how He got His Kingdom."
Gwen listened silent but unconvinced, and then said slowly:
"But how can this be best for me? I am no use to anyone. It can't be best to just lie here and make them all wait on me, and—and—I did want to help daddy—and—oh—I know they will get tired of me! They are getting tired already—I—I—can't help being hateful."
She was by this time sobbing as I had never heard her before—deep, passionate sobs. Then again the Pilot had an inspiration.
"Now, Gwen," he said severely, "you know we're not as mean as that, and that you are just talking nonsense, every word. Now I'm going to smooth out your red hair and tell you a story."
"It's NOT red," she cried, between her sobs. This was her sore point.
"It is red, as red can be; a beautiful, shining purple RED," said The Pilot emphatically, beginning to brush.
"Purple!" cried Gwen, scornfully.
"Yes, I've seen it in the sun, purple. Haven't you?" said The Pilot, appealing to me. "And my story is about the canyon, our canyon, your canyon, down there."
"Is it true?" asked Gwen, already soothed by the cool, quick-moving hands.
"True? It's as true as—as—" he glanced round the room, "as the Pilgrim's Progress." This was satisfactory, and the story went on.
"At first there were no canyons, but only the broad, open prairie. One day the Master of the Prairie, walking out over his great lawns, where were only grasses, asked the Prairie, 'Where are your flowers?' and the Prairie said, 'Master, I have no seeds.' Then he spoke to the birds, and they carried seeds of every kind of flower and strewed them far and wide, and soon the Prairie bloomed with crocuses and roses and buffalo beans and the yellow crowfoot and the wild sunflowers and the red lilies all the summer long. Then the Master came and was well pleased; but he missed the flowers he loved best of all, and he said to the Prairie: 'Where are the clematis and the columbine, the sweet violets and wind flowers, and all the ferns and flowering shrubs?' And again he spoke to the birds, and again they carried all the seeds and strewed them far and wide. But, again, when the Master came, he could not find the flowers he loved best of all, and he said: 'Where are those, my sweetest flowers?' and the Prairie cried sorrowfully: 'Oh, Master, I cannot keep the flowers, for the winds sweep fiercely, and the sun beats upon my breast, and they wither up and fly away.' Then the Master spoke to the Lightning, and with one swift blow the Lightning cleft the Prairie to the heart. And the Prairie rocked and groaned in agony, and for many a day moaned bitterly over its black, jagged, gaping wound. But the Little Swan poured its waters through the cleft, and carried down deep black mould, and once more the birds carried seeds and strewed them in the canyon. And after a long time the rough rocks were decked out with soft mosses and trailing vines, and all the nooks were hung with clematis and columbine, and great elms lifted their huge tops high up into the sunlight, and down about their feet clustered the low cedars and balsams, and everywhere the violets and wind-flower and maiden-hair grew and bloomed, till the canyon became the Masters place for rest and peace and joy."
The quaint tale was ended, and Gwen lay quiet for some moments, then said gently:
"Yes! The canyon flowers are much the best. Tell me what it means."
Then The Pilot read to her: "The fruits—I'll read 'flowers'—of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control, and some of these grow only in the canyon."
"Which are the canyon flowers?" asked Gwen softly, and The Pilot answered:
"Gentleness, meekness, self-control; but though the others, love, joy, peace, bloom in the open, yet never with so rich a bloom and so sweet a perfume as in the canyon."
For a long time Gwen lay quite still, and then said wistfully, while her lip trembled:
"There are no flowers in my canyon, but only ragged rocks."
"Some day they will bloom, Gwen dear; He will find them, and we, too, shall see them."
Then he said good-by and took me away. He had done his work that day.
We rode through the big gate, down the sloping hill, past the smiling, twinkling little lake, and down again out of the broad sunshine into the shadows and soft lights of the canyon. As we followed the trail that wound among the elms and cedars, the very air was full of gentle stillness; and as we moved we seemed to feel the touch of loving hands that lingered while they left us, and every flower and tree and vine and shrub and the soft mosses and the deep-bedded ferns whispered, as we passed, of love and peace and joy.
To The Duke it was all a wonder, for as the days shortened outside they brightened inside; and every day, and more and more Gwen's room became the brightest spot in all the house, and when he asked The Pilot:
"What did you do to the Little Princess, and what's all this about the canyon and its flowers?" The Pilot said, looking wistfully into The Duke's eyes:
"The fruits of the Spirit are love, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control, and some of these are found only in the canyon," and The Duke, standing up straight, handsome and strong, looked back at The Pilot and said, putting out his hand:
"Do you know, I believe you're right."
"Yes, I'm quite sure," answered The Pilot, simply. Then, holding The Duke's hand as long as one man dare hold another's, he added: "When you come to your canyon, remember."
"When I come!" said The Duke, and a quick spasm of pain passed over his handsome face—"God help me, it's not too far away now." Then he smiled again his old, sweet smile, and said:
"Yes, you are all right, for, of all flowers I have seen, none are fairer or sweeter than those that are waving in Gwen's Canyon."
The Pilot had set his heart upon the building of a church in the Swan Creek district, partly because he was human and wished to set a mark of remembrance upon the country, but more because he held the sensible opinion, that a congregation, as a man, must have a home if it is to stay.
All through the summer he kept setting this as an object at once desirable and possible to achieve. But few were found to agree with him.
Little Mrs. Muir was of the few, and she was not to be despised, but her influence was neutralized by the solid immobility of her husband. He had never done anything sudden in his life. Every resolve was the result of a long process of mind, and every act of importance had to be previewed from all possible points. An honest man, strongly religious, and a great admirer of The Pilot, but slow-moving as a glacier, although with plenty of fire in him deep down.
"He's soond at the hairt, ma man Robbie," his wife said to The Pilot, who was fuming and fretting at the blocking of his plans, "but he's terrible deleeberate. Bide ye a bit, laddie. He'll come tae."
"But meantime the summer's going and nothing will be done," was The Pilot's distressed and impatient answer.
So a meeting was called to discuss the question of building a church, with the result that the five men and three women present decided that for the present nothing could be done. This was really Robbie's opinion, though he refused to do or say anything but grunt, as The Pilot said to me afterwards, in a rage. It is true, Williams, the storekeeper just come from "across the line," did all the talking, but no one paid much attention to his fluent fatuities except as they represented the unexpressed mind of the dour, exasperating little Scotchman, who sat silent but for an "ay" now and then, so expressive and conclusive that everyone knew what he meant, and that discussion was at an end. The schoolhouse was quite sufficient for the present; the people were too few and too poor and they were getting on well under the leadership of their present minister. These were the arguments which Robbie's "ay" stamped as quite unanswerable.
It was a sore blow to The Pilot, who had set his heart upon a church, and neither Mrs. Muir's "hoots" at her husband's slowness nor her promises that she "wad mak him hear it" could bring comfort or relieve his gloom.
In this state of mind he rode up with me to pay our weekly visit to the little girl shut up in her lonely house among the hills.
It had become The Pilot's custom during these weeks to turn for cheer to that little room, and seldom was he disappointed. She was so bright, so brave, so cheery, and so full of fun, that gloom faded from her presence as mist before the sun, and impatience was shamed into content.
Gwen's bright face—it was almost always bright now—and her bright welcome did something for The Pilot, but the feeling of failure was upon him, and failure to his enthusiastic nature was worse than pain. Not that he confessed either to failure or gloom; he was far too true a man for that; but Gwen felt his depression in spite of all his brave attempts at brightness, and insisted that he was ill, appealing to me.
"Oh, it's only his church," I said, proceeding to give her an account of Robbie Muir's silent, solid inertness, and how he had blocked The Pilot's scheme.
"What a shame!" cried Gwen, indignantly. "What a bad man he must be!"
The Pilot smiled. "No, indeed," he answered; "why, he's the best man in the place, but I wish he would say or do something. If he would only get mad and swear I think I should feel happier."
Gwen looked quite mystified.
"You see, he sits there in solemn silence looking so tremendously wise that most men feel foolish if they speak, while as for doing anything the idea appears preposterous, in the face of his immovableness."
"I can't bear him!" cried Gwen. "I should like to stick pins in him."
"I wish some one would," answered The Pilot. "It would make him seem more human if he could be made to jump."
"Try again," said Gwen, "and get someone to make him jump."
"It would be easier to build the church," said The Pilot, gloomily.
"I could make him jump," said Gwen, viciously, "and I WILL," she added, after a pause.
"You!" answered The Pilot, opening his eyes. "How?"
"I'll find some way," she replied, resolutely.
And so she did, for when the next meeting was called to consult as to the building of a church, the congregation, chiefly of farmers and their wives, with Williams, the storekeeper, were greatly surprised to see Bronco Bill, Hi, and half a dozen ranchers and cowboys walk in at intervals and solemnly seat themselves. Robbie looked at them with surprise and a little suspicion. In church matters he had no dealings with the Samaritans from the hills, and while, in their unregenerate condition, they might be regarded as suitable objects of missionary effort, as to their having any part in the direction, much less control, of the church policy—from such a notion Robbie was delivered by his loyal adherence to the scriptural injunction that he should not cast pearls before swine.
The Pilot, though surprised to see Bill and the cattle men, was none the less delighted, and faced the meeting with more confidence. He stated the question for discussion: Should a church building be erected this summer in Swan Creek? and he put his case well. He showed the need of a church for the sake of the congregation, for the sake of the men in the district, the families growing up, the incoming settlers, and for the sake of the country and its future. He called upon all who loved their church and their country to unite in this effort. It was an enthusiastic appeal and all the women and some of the men were at once upon his side.
Then followed dead, solemn silence. Robbie was content to wait till the effect of the speech should be dissipated in smaller talk. Then he gravely said:
"The kirk wad be a gran' thing, nae doot, an' they wad a' dootless"—with a suspicious glance toward Bill—"rejoice in its erection. But we maun be cautious, an' I wad like to enquire hoo much money a kirk cud be built for, and whaur the money wad come frae?"
The Pilot was ready with his answer. The cost would be $1,200. The Church Building Fund would contribute $200, the people could give $300 in labor, and the remaining $700 he thought could be raised in the district in two years' time.
"Ay," said Robbie, and the tone and manner were sufficient to drench any enthusiasm with the chilliest of water. So much was this the case that the chairman, Williams, seemed quite justified in saying:
"It is quite evident that the opinion of the meeting is adverse to any attempt to load the community with a debt of one thousand dollars," and he proceeded with a very complete statement of the many and various objections to any attempt at building a church this year. The people were very few, they were dispersed over a large area, they were not interested sufficiently, they were all spending money and making little in return; he supposed, therefore, that the meeting might adjourn.
Robbie sat silent and expressionless in spite of his little wife's anxious whispers and nudges. The Pilot looked the picture of woe, and was on the point of bursting forth, when the meeting was startled by Bill.
"Say, boys! they hain't much stuck on their shop, heh?" The low, drawling voice was perfectly distinct and arresting.
"Hain't got no use for it, seemingly," was the answer from the dark corner.
"Old Scotchie takes his religion out in prayin', I guess," drawled in Bill, "but wants to sponge for his plant."
This reference to Robbie's proposal to use the school moved the youngsters to tittering and made the little Scotchman squirm, for he prided himself upon his independence.
"There ain't $700 in the hull blanked outfit." This was a stranger's voice, and again Robbie squirmed, for he rather prided himself also on his ability to pay his way.
"No good!" said another emphatic voice. "A blanked lot o' psalm-singing snipes."
"Order, order!" cried the chairman.
"Old Windbag there don't see any show for swipin' the collection, with Scotchie round," said Hi, with a following ripple of quiet laughter, for Williams' reputation was none too secure.
Robbie was in a most uncomfortable state of mind. So unusually stirred was he that for the first time in his history he made a motion.
"I move we adjourn, Mr. Chairman," he said, in a voice which actually vibrated with emotion.
"Different here! eh, boys?" drawled Bill.
"You bet," said Hi, in huge delight. "The meetin' ain't out yit."
"Ye can bide till mor-r-nin'," said Robbie, angrily. "A'm gaen hame," beginning to put on his coat.
"Seems as if he orter give the password," drawled Bill.
"Right you are, pardner," said Hi, springing to the door and waiting in delighted expectation for his friend's lead.
Robbie looked at the door, then at his wife, hesitated a moment, I have no doubt wishing her home. Then Bill stood up and began to speak.
"Mr. Chairman, I hain't been called on for any remarks—"
"Go on!" yelled his friends from the dark corner. "Hear! hear!"
"An' I didn't feel as if this war hardly my game, though The Pilot ain't mean about invitin' a feller on Sunday afternoons. But them as runs the shop don't seem to want us fellers round too much."
Robbie was gazing keenly at Bill, and here shook his head, muttering angrily: "Hoots, nonsense! ye're welcome eneuch."
"But," went on Bill, slowly, "I guess I've been on the wrong track. I've been a-cherishin' the opinion" ["Hear! hear!" yelled his admirers], "cherishin' the opinion," repeated Bill, "that these fellers," pointing to Robbie, "was stuck on religion, which I ain't much myself, and reely consarned about the blocking ov the devil, which The Pilot says can't be did without a regular Gospel factory. O' course, it tain't any biznis ov mine, but if us fellers was reely only sot on anything condoocin'," ["Hear! hear!" yelled Hi, in ecstasy], "condoocin'," repeated Bill slowly and with relish, "to the good ov the Order" (Bill was a brotherhood man), "I b'lieve I know whar five hundred dollars mebbe cud per'aps be got."
"You bet your sox," yelled the strange voice, in chorus with other shouts of approval.
"O' course, I ain't no bettin' man," went on Bill, insinuatingly, "as a regular thing, but I'd gamble a few jist here on this pint; if the boys was stuck on anythin' costin' about seven hundred dollars, it seems to me likely they'd git it in about two days, per'aps."
Here Robbie grunted out an "ay" of such fulness of contemptuous unbelief that Bill paused, and, looking over Robbie's head, he drawled out, even more slowly and mildly:
"I ain't much given to bettin', as I remarked before, but, if a man shakes money at me on that proposition, I'd accommodate him to a limited extent." ["Hear! hear! Bully boy!" yelled Hi again, from the door.] "Not bein' too bold, I cherish the opinion" [again yells of approval from the corner], "that even for this here Gospel plant, seein' The Pilot's rather sot onto it, I b'lieve the boys could find five hundred dollars inside ov a month, if perhaps these fellers cud wiggle the rest out ov their pants."
Then Robbie was in great wrath and, stung by the taunting, drawling voice beyond all self-command, he broke out suddenly:
"Ye'll no can mak that guid, I doot."
"D'ye mean I ain't prepared to back it up?"
"Ay," said Robbie, grimly.
"'Tain't likely I'll be called on; I guess $500 is safe enough," drawled Bill, cunningly drawing him on. Then Robbie bit.
"Oo ay!" said he, in a voice of quiet contempt, "the twa hunner wull be here and 'twull wait ye long eneuch, I'se warrant ye."
Then Bill nailed him.
"I hain't got my card case on my person," he said, with a slight grin.
"Left it on the pianner," suggested Hi, who was in a state of great hilarity at Bill's success in drawing the Scottie.
"But," Bill proceeded, recovering himself, and with increasing suavity, "if some gentleman would mark down the date of the almanac I cherish the opinion" [cheers from the corner] "that in one month from to-day there will be five hundred dollars lookin' round for two hundred on that there desk mebbe, or p'raps you would incline to two fifty," he drawled, in his most winning tone to Robbie, who was growing more impatient every moment.
"Nae matter tae me. Ye're haverin' like a daft loon, ony way."
"You will make a memento of this slight transaction, boys, and per'aps the schoolmaster will write it down," said Bill.
It was all carefully taken down, and amid much enthusiastic confusion the ranchers and their gang carried Bill off to Old Latour's to "licker up," while Robbie, in deep wrath but in dour silence, went off through the dark with his little wife following some paces behind him. His chief grievance, however, was against the chairman for "allooin' sic a disorderly pack o' loons tae disturb respectable fowk," for he could not hide the fact that he had been made to break through his accustomed defence line of immovable silence. I suggested, conversing with him next day upon the matter, that Bill was probably only chaffing.
"Ay," said Robbie, in great disgust, "the daft eejut, he wad mak a fule o' onything or onybuddie."
That was the sorest point with poor Robbie. Bill had not only cast doubts upon his religious sincerity, which the little man could not endure, but he had also held him up to the ridicule of the community, which was painful to his pride. But when he understood, some days later, that Bill was taking steps to back up his offer and had been heard to declare that "he'd make them pious ducks take water if he had to put up a year's pay," Robbie went quietly to work to make good his part of the bargain. For his Scotch pride would not suffer him to refuse a challenge from such a quarter.
The next day everyone was talking of Bill's bluffing the church people, and there was much quiet chuckling over the discomfiture of Robbie Muir and his party.
The Pilot was equally distressed and bewildered, for Bill's conduct, so very unusual, had only one explanation—the usual one for any folly in that country.
"I wish he had waited till after the meeting to go to Latour's. He spoiled the last chance I had. There's no use now," he said, sadly.
"But he may do something," I suggested.
"Oh, fiddle!" said The Pilot, contemptuously. "He was only giving Muir 'a song and dance,' as he would say. The whole thing is off."
But when I told Gwen the story of the night's proceedings, she went into raptures over Bill's grave speech and his success in drawing the canny Scotchman.
"Oh, lovely! dear old Bill and his 'cherished opinion.' Isn't he just lovely? Now he'll do something."
"No, that stupid Scottie." This was her name for the immovable Robbie.
"Not he, I'm afraid. Of course Bill was just bluffing him. But it was good sport."
"Oh, lovely! I knew he'd do something."
"Who? Scottie?" I asked, for her pronouns were perplexing.
"No!" she cried, "Bill! He promised he would, you know," she added.
"So you were at the bottom of it?" I said, amazed.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" she kept crying, shrieking with laughter over Bill's cherishing opinions and desires. "I shall be ill. Dear old Bill. He said he'd 'try to get a move on to him.'"
Before I left that day, Bill himself came to the Old Timer's ranch, inquiring in a casual way "if the 'boss' was in."
"Oh, Bill!" called out Gwen, "come in here at once; I want you."
After some delay and some shuffling with hat and spurs, Bill lounged in and set his lank form upon the extreme end of a bench at the door, trying to look unconcerned as he remarked: "Gittin' cold. Shouldn't wonder if we'd have a little snow."
"Oh, come here," cried Gwen, impatiently, holding out her hand. "Come here and shake hands."
Bill hesitated, spat out into the other room his quid of tobacco, and swayed awkwardly across the room toward the bed, and, taking Gwen's hand, he shook it up and down, and hurriedly said:
"Fine day, ma'am; hope I see you quite well."
"No; you don't," cried Gwen, laughing immoderately, but keeping hold of Bill's hand, to his great confusion. "I'm not well a bit, but I'm a great deal better since hearing of your meeting, Bill."
To this Bill made no reply, being entirely engrossed in getting his hard, bony, brown hand out of the grasp of the white, clinging fingers.
"Oh, Bill," went on Gwen, "it was delightful! How did you do it?"
But Bill, who had by this time got back to his seat at the door, pretended ignorance of any achievement calling for remark. He "hadn't done nothin' more out ov the way than usual."
"Oh, don't talk nonsense!" cried Gwen, impatiently. "Tell me how you got Scottie to lay you two hundred and fifty dollars."
"Oh, that!" said Bill, in great surprise; "that ain't nuthin' much. Scottie riz slick enough."
"But how did you get him?" persisted Gwen. "Tell me, Bill," she added, in her most coaxing voice.
"Well," said Bill, "it was easy as rollin' off a log. I made the remark as how the boys ginerally put up for what they wanted without no fuss, and that if they was sot on havin' a Gospel shack I cherished the opinion"—here Gwen went off into a smothered shriek, which made Bill pause and look at her in alarm.
"Go on," she gasped.
"I cherished the opinion," drawled on Bill, while Gwen stuck her handkerchief into her mouth, "that mebbe they'd put up for it the seven hundred dollars, and, even as it was, seein' as The Pilot appeared to be sot on to it, if them fellers would find two hundred and fifty I cher—" another shriek from Gwen cut him suddenly short.
"It's the rheumaticks, mebbe," said Bill, anxiously. "Terrible bad weather for 'em. I get 'em myself."
"No, no," said Gwen, wiping away her tears and subduing her laughter. "Go on, Bill."
"There ain't no more," said Bill. "He bit, and the master here put it down."
"Yes, it's here right enough," I said, "but I don't suppose you mean to follow it up, do you?"
"You don't, eh? Well, I am not responsible for your supposin', but them that is familiar with Bronco Bill generally expects him to back up his undertakin's."
"But how in the world can you get five hundred dollars from the cowboys for a church?"
"I hain't done the arithmetic yet, but it's safe enough. You see, it ain't the church altogether, it's the reputation of the boys."
"I'll help, Bill," said Gwen.
Bill nodded his head slowly and said: "Proud to have you," trying hard to look enthusiastic.
"You don't think I can," said Gwen. Bill protested against such an imputation. "But I can. I'll get daddy and The Duke, too."
"Good line!" said Bill, slapping his knee.
"And I'll give all my money, too, but it isn't very much," she added, sadly.
"Much!" said Bill, "if the rest of the fellows play up to that lead there won't be any trouble about that five hundred."
Gwen was silent for some time, then said with an air of resolve:
"I'll give my pinto!"
"Nonsense!" I exclaimed, while Bill declared "there warn't no call."
"Yes. I'll give the Pinto!" said Gwen, decidedly. "I'll not need him any more," her lips quivered, and Bill coughed and spat into the next room, "and besides, I want to give something I like. And Bill will sell him for me!"
"Well," said Bill, slowly, "now come to think, it'll be purty hard to sell that there pinto." Gwen began to exclaim indignantly, and Bill hurried on to say, "Not but what he ain't a good leetle horse for his weight, good leetle horse, but for cattle—"
"Why, Bill, there isn't a better cattle horse anywhere!"
"Yes, that's so," assented Bill. "That's so, if you've got the rider, but put one of them rangers on to him and it wouldn't be no fair show." Bill was growing more convinced every moment that the pinto wouldn't sell to any advantage. "Ye see," he explained carefully and cunningly, "he ain't a horse you could yank round and slam into a bunch of steers regardless."
Gwen shuddered. "Oh, I wouldn't think of selling him to any of those cowboys." Bill crossed his legs and hitched round uncomfortably on his bench. "I mean one of those rough fellows that don't know how to treat a horse." Bill nodded, looking relieved. "I thought that some one like you, Bill, who knew how to handle a horse—"
Gwen paused, and then added: "I'll ask The Duke."
"No call for that," said Bill, hastily, "not but what The Dook ain't all right as a jedge of a horse, but The Dook ain't got the connection, it ain't his line." Bill hesitated. "But, if you are real sot on to sellin' that pinto, come to think I guess I could find a sale for him, though, of course, I think perhaps the figger won't be high."
And so it was arranged that the pinto should be sold and that Bill should have the selling of it.
It was characteristic of Gwen that she would not take farewell of the pony on whose back she had spent so many hours of freedom and delight. When once she gave him up she refused to allow her heart to cling to him any more.
It was characteristic, too, of Bill that he led off the pinto after night had fallen, so that "his pardner" might be saved the pain of the parting.
"This here's rather a new game for me, but when my pardner," here he jerked his head towards Gwen's window, "calls for trumps, I'm blanked if I don't throw my highest, if it costs a leg."
Bill's method of conducting the sale of the pinto was eminently successful as a financial operation, but there are those in the Swan Creek country who have never been able to fathom the mystery attaching to the affair. It was at the fall round-up, the beef round-up, as it is called, which this year ended at the Ashley Ranch. There were representatives from all the ranches and some cattle-men from across the line. The hospitality of the Ashley Ranch was up to its own lofty standard, and, after supper, the men were in a state of high exhilaration. The Hon. Fred and his wife, Lady Charlotte, gave themselves to the duties of their position as hosts for the day with a heartiness and grace beyond praise. After supper the men gathered round the big fire, which was piled up before the long, low shed, which stood open in front. It was a scene of such wild and picturesque interest as can only be witnessed in the western ranching country. About the fire, most of them wearing "shaps" and all of them wide, hard-brimmed cowboy hats, the men grouped themselves, some reclining upon skins thrown upon the ground, some standing, some sitting, smoking, laughing, chatting, all in highest spirits and humor. They had just got through with their season of arduous and, at times, dangerous toil. Their minds were full of their long, hard rides, their wild and varying experiences with mad cattle and bucking broncos, their anxious watchings through hot nights, when a breath of wind or a coyote's howl might set the herd off in a frantic stampede, their wolf hunts and badger fights and all the marvellous adventures that fill up a cowboy's summer. Now these were all behind them. To-night they were free men and of independent means, for their season's pay was in their pockets. The day's excitement, too, was still in their blood, and they were ready for anything.
Bill, as king of the bronco-busters, moved about with the slow, careless indifference of a man sure of his position and sure of his ability to maintain it.
He spoke seldom and slowly, was not as ready-witted as his partner, Hi Kendal, but in act he was swift and sure, and "in trouble" he could be counted on. He was, as they said, "a white man; white to the back," which was understood to sum up the true cattle man's virtues.
"Hello, Bill," said a friend, "where's Hi? Hain't seen him around!"
"Well, don't jest know. He was going to bring up my pinto."
"Your pinto? What pinto's that? You hain't got no pinto!"
"Mebbe not," said Bill, slowly, "but I had the idee before you spoke that I had."
"That so? Whar'd ye git him? Good for cattle?" The crowd began to gather.
Bill grew mysterious, and even more than usually reserved.
"Good fer cattle! Well, I ain't much on gamblin', but I've got a leetle in my pants that says that there pinto kin outwork any blanked bronco in this outfit, givin' him a fair show after the cattle."
The men became interested.
"Whar was he raised?"
"Whar'd ye git him? Across the line?"
"No," said Bill stoutly, "right in this here country. The Dook there knows him."
This at once raised the pinto several points. To be known, and, as Bill's tone indicated, favorably known by The Duke, was a testimonial to which any horse might aspire.
"Whar'd ye git him, Bill? Don't be so blanked oncommunicatin'!" said an impatient voice.
Bill hesitated; then, with an apparent burst of confidence, he assumed his frankest manner and voice, and told his tale.
"Well," he said, taking a fresh chew and offering his plug to his neighbor, who passed it on after helping himself, "ye see, it was like this. Ye know that little Meredith gel?"
Chorus of answers: "Yes! The red-headed one. I know! She's a daisy!—reg'lar blizzard!—lightnin' conductor!"
Bill paused, stiffened himself a little, dropped his frank air and drawled out in cool, hard tones: "I might remark that that young lady is, I might persoom to say, a friend of mine, which I'm prepared to back up in my best style, and if any blanked blanked son of a street sweeper has any remark to make, here's his time now!"
In the pause that followed murmurs were heard extolling the many excellences of the young lady in question, and Bill, appeased, yielded to the requests for the continuance of his story, and, as he described Gwen and her pinto and her work on the ranch, the men, many of whom had had glimpses of her, gave emphatic approval in their own way. But as he told of her rescue of Joe and of the sudden calamity that had befallen her a great stillness fell upon the simple, tender-hearted fellows, and they listened with their eyes shining in the firelight with growing intentness. Then Bill spoke of The Pilot and how he stood by her and helped her and cheered her till they began to swear he was "all right"; "and now," concluded Bill, "when The Pilot is in a hole she wants to help him out."
"O' course," said one. "Right enough. How's she going to work it?" said another.
"Well, he's dead set on to buildin' a meetin'-house, and them fellows down at the Creek that does the prayin' and such don't seem to back him up!"
"Whar's the kick, Bill?"
"Oh, they don't want to go down into their clothes and put up for it."
"Why, he only asked 'em for seven hundred the hull outfit, and would give 'em two years, but they bucked—wouldn't look at it."
[Chorus of expletives descriptive of the characters and personal appearance and belongings of the congregation of Swan Creek.]
"Were you there, Bill? What did you do?"
"Oh," said Bill, modestly, "I didn't do much. Gave 'em a little bluff."
"No! How? What? Go on, Bill."
But Bill remained silent, till under strong pressure, and, as if making a clean breast of everything, he said:
"Well, I jest told 'em that if you boys made such a fuss about anythin' like they did about their Gospel outfit, an' I ain't sayin' anythin' agin it, you'd put up seven hundred without turnin' a hair."
"You're the stuff, Bill! Good man! You're talkin' now! What did they say to that, eh, Bill?"
"Well," said Bill, slowly, "they CALLED me!"
"No! That so? An' what did you do, Bill?"
"Gave 'em a dead straight bluff!"
[Yells of enthusiastic approval.]
"Did they take you, Bill?"
"Well, I reckon they did. The master, here, put it down."
Whereupon I read the terms of Bill's bluff.
There was a chorus of very hearty approvals of Bill's course in "not taking any water" from that variously characterized "outfit." But the responsibility of the situation began to dawn upon them when some one asked:
"How are you going about it, Bill?"
"Well," drawled Bill, with a touch of sarcasm in his voice, "there's that pinto."
"Pinto be blanked!" said young Hill. "Say, boys, is that little girl going to lose that one pony of hers to help out her friend The Pilot? Good fellow, too, he is! We know he's the right sort."
[Chorus of, "Not by a long sight; not much; we'll put up the stuff! Pinto!"]
"Then," went on Bill, even more slowly, "there's The Pilot; he's going for to ante up a month's pay; 'taint much, o' course—twenty-eight a month and grub himself. He might make it two," he added, thoughtfully. But Bill's proposal was scorned with contemptuous groans. "Twenty-eight a month and grub himself o' course ain't much for a man to save money out ov to eddicate himself." Bill continued, as if thinking aloud, "O' course he's got his mother at home, but she can't make much more than her own livin', but she might help him some."
This was altogether too much for the crowd. They consigned Bill and his plans to unutterable depths of woe.
"O' course," Bill explained, "it's jest as you boys feel about it. Mebbe I was, bein' hot, a little swift in givin' 'em the bluff."
"Not much, you wasn't! We'll see you out! That's the talk! There's between twenty and thirty of us here."
"I should be glad to contribute thirty or forty if need be," said The Duke, who was standing not far off, "to assist in the building of a church. It would be a good thing, and I think the parson should be encouraged. He's the right sort."
"I'll cover your thirty," said young Hill; and so it went from one to another in tens and fifteens and twenties, till within half an hour I had entered three hundred and fifty dollars in my book, with Ashley yet to hear from, which meant fifty more. It was Bill's hour of triumph.
"Boys," he said, with solemn emphasis, "ye're all white. But that leetle pale-faced gel, that's what I'm thinkin' on. Won't she open them big eyes ov hers! I cherish the opinion that this'll tickle her some."
The men were greatly pleased with Bill and even more pleased with themselves. Bill's picture of the "leetle gel" and her pathetically tragic lot had gone right to their hearts and, with men of that stamp, it was one of their few luxuries to yield to their generous impulses. The most of them had few opportunities of lavishing love and sympathy upon worthy objects and, when the opportunity came, all that was best in them clamored for expression.
HOW THE PINTO SOLD
The glow of virtuous feeling following the performance of their generous act prepared the men for a keener enjoyment than usual of a night's sport. They had just begun to dispose themselves in groups about the fire for poker and other games when Hi rode up into the light and with him a stranger on Gwen's beautiful pinto pony.
Hi was evidently half drunk and, as he swung himself of his bronco, he saluted the company with a wave of the hand and hoped he saw them "kickin'."
Bill, looking curiously at Hi, went up to the pinto and, taking him by the head, led him up into the light, saying:
"See here, boys, there's that pinto of mine I was telling you about; no flies on him, eh?"
"Hold on there! Excuse me!" said the stranger, "this here hoss belongs to me, if paid-down money means anything in this country."
"The country's all right," said Bill in an ominously quiet voice, "but this here pinto's another transaction, I reckon."
"The hoss is mine, I say, and what's more, I'm goin' to hold him," said the stranger in a loud voice.
The men began to crowd around with faces growing hard. It was dangerous in that country to play fast and loose with horses.
"Look a-hyar, mates," said the stranger, with a Yankee drawl, "I ain't no hoss thief, and if I hain't bought this hoss reg'lar and paid down good money then it ain't mine—if I have it is. That's fair, ain't it?"
At this Hi pulled himself together, and in a half-drunken tone declared that the stranger was all right, and that he had bought the horse fair and square, and "there's your dust," said Hi, handing a roll to Bill. But with a quick movement Bill caught the stranger by the leg, and, before a word could be said, he was lying flat on the ground.
"You git off that pony," said Bill, "till this thing is settled."
There was something so terrible in Bill's manner that the man contented himself with blustering and swearing, while Bill, turning to Hi, said:
"Did you sell this pinto to him?"
Hi was able to acknowledge that, being offered a good price, and knowing that his partner was always ready for a deal, he had transferred the pinto to the stranger for forty dollars.
Bill was in distress, deep and poignant. "'Taint the horse, but the leetle gel," he explained; but his partner's bargain was his, and wrathful as he was, he refused to attempt to break the bargain.
At this moment the Hon. Fred, noting the unusual excitement about the fire, came up, followed at a little distance by his wife and The Duke.
"Perhaps he'll sell," he suggested.
"No," said Bill sullenly, "he's a mean cuss."
"I know him," said the Hon. Fred, "let me try him." But the stranger declared the pinto suited him down to the ground and he wouldn't take twice his money for him.
"Why," he protested, "that there's what I call an unusual hoss, and down in Montana for a lady he'd fetch up to a hundred and fifty dollars." In vain they haggled and bargained; the man was immovable. Eighty dollars he wouldn't look at, a hundred hardly made him hesitate. At this point Lady Charlotte came down into the light and stood by her husband, who explained the circumstances to her. She had already heard Bill's description of Gwen's accident and of her part in the church-building schemes. There was silence for a few moments as she stood looking at the beautiful pony.
"What a shame the poor child should have to part with the dear little creature!" she said in a low tone to her husband. Then, turning to the stranger, she said in clear, sweet tones:
"What do you ask for him?" He hesitated and then said, lifting his hat awkwardly in salute: "I was just remarking how that pinto would fetch one hundred and fifty dollars down into Montana. But seein' as a lady is enquirin', I'll put him down to one hundred and twenty-five."
"Too much," she said promptly, "far too much, is it not, Bill?"
"Well," drawled Bill, "if 'twere a fellar as was used to ladies he'd offer you the pinto, but he's too pizen mean even to come down to the even hundred."
The Yankee took him up quickly. "Wall, if I were so blanked—pardon, madam"—taking off his hat, "used to ladies as some folks would like to think themselves, I'd buy that there pinto and make a present of it to this here lady as stands before me." Bill twisted uneasily.
"But I ain't goin' to be mean; I'll put that pinto in for the even money for the lady if any man cares to put up the stuff."
"Well, my dear," said the Hon. Fred with a bow, "we cannot well let that gage lie." She turned and smiled at him and the pinto was transferred to the Ashley stables, to Bill's outspoken delight, who declared he "couldn't have faced the music if that there pinto had gone across the line." I confess, however, I was somewhat surprised at the ease with which Hi escaped his wrath, and my surprise was in no way lessened when I saw, later in the evening, the two partners with the stranger taking a quiet drink out of the same bottle with evident mutual admiration and delight.
"You're an A1 corker, you are! I'll be blanked if you ain't a bird—a singin' bird—a reg'lar canary," I heard Hi say to Bill.
But Bill's only reply was a long, slow wink which passed into a frown as he caught my eye. My suspicion was aroused that the sale of the pinto might bear investigation, and this suspicion was deepened when Gwen next week gave me a rapturous account of how splendidly Bill had disposed of the pinto, showing me bills for one hundred and fifty dollars! To my look of amazement, Gwen replied:
"You see, he must have got them bidding against each other, and besides, Bill says pintos are going up."
Light began to dawn upon me, but I only answered that I knew they had risen very considerably in value within a month. The extra fifty was Bill's.
I was not present to witness the finishing of Bill's bluff, but was told that when Bill made his way through the crowded aisle and laid his five hundred and fifty dollars on the schoolhouse desk the look of disgust, surprise and finally of pleasure on Robbie's face, was worth a hundred more. But Robbie was ready and put down his two hundred with the single remark:
"Ay! ye're no as daft as ye look," mid roars of laughter from all.
Then The Pilot, with eyes and face shining, rose and thanked them all; but when he told of how the little girl in her lonely shack in the hills thought so much of the church that she gave up for it her beloved pony, her one possession, the light from his eyes glowed in the eyes of all.
But the men from the ranches who could understand the full meaning of her sacrifice and who also could realize the full measure of her calamity, were stirred to their hearts' depths, so that when Bill remarked in a very distinct undertone, "I cherish the opinion that this here Gospel shop wouldn't be materializin' into its present shape but for that leetle gel," there rose growls of approval in a variety of tones and expletives that left no doubt that his opinion was that of all.
But though The Pilot never could quite get at the true inwardness of Bill's measures and methods, and was doubtless all the more comfortable in mind for that, he had no doubt that while Gwen's influence was the moving spring of action, Bill's bluff had a good deal to do with the "materializin'" of the first church in Swan Creek, and in this conviction, I share.
Whether the Hon. Fred ever understood the peculiar style of Bill's financing, I do not quite know. But if he ever did come to know, he was far too much of a man to make a fuss. Besides, I fancy the smile on his lady's face was worth some large amount to him. At least, so the look of proud and fond love in his eyes seemed to say as he turned away with her from the fire the night of the pinto's sale.
THE LADY CHARLOTTE
The night of the pinto's sale was a night momentous to Gwen, for then it was that the Lady Charlotte's interest in her began. Momentous, too, to the Lady Charlotte, for it was that night that brought The Pilot into her life.
I had turned back to the fire around which the men had fallen into groups prepared to have an hour's solid delight, for the scene was full of wild and picturesque beauty to me, when The Duke came and touched me on the shoulder.
"Lady Charlotte would like to see you."
"And why, pray?"
"She wants to hear about this affair of Bill's."
We went through the kitchen into the large dining-room, at one end of which was a stone chimney and fireplace. Lady Charlotte had declared that she did not much care what kind of a house the Hon. Fred would build for her, but that she must have a fireplace.
She was very beautiful—tall, slight and graceful in every line. There was a reserve and a grand air in her bearing that put people in awe of her. This awe I shared; but as I entered the room she welcomed me with such kindly grace that I felt quite at ease in a moment.
"Come and sit by me," she said, drawing an armchair into the circle about the fire. "I want you to tell us all about a great many things."
"You see what you're in for, Connor," said her husband. "It is a serious business when my lady takes one in hand."
"As he knows to his cost," she said, smiling and shaking her head at her husband.
"So I can testify," put in The Duke.
"Ah! I can't do anything with you," she replied, turning to him.
"Your most abject slave," he replied with a profound bow.
"If you only were," smiling at him—a little sadly, I thought—"I'd keep you out of all sorts of mischief."
"Quite true, Duke," said her husband, "just look at me."
The Duke gazed at him a moment or two. "Wonderful!" he murmured, "what a deliverance!"
"Nonsense!" broke in Lady Charlotte. "You are turning my mind away from my purpose."
"Is it possible, do you think?" said The Duke to her husband.
"Not in the very least," he replied, "if my experience goes for anything."
But Lady Charlotte turned her back upon them and said to me:
"Now, tell me first about Bill's encounter with that funny little Scotchman."
Then I told her the story of Bill's bluff in my best style, imitating, as I have some small skill in doing, the manner and speech of the various actors in the scene. She was greatly amused and interested.
"And Bill has really got his share ready," she cried. "It is very clever of him."
"Yes," I replied, "but Bill is only the very humble instrument, the moving spirit is behind."
"Oh, yes, you mean the little girl that owns the pony," she said. "That's another thing you must tell me about."
"The Duke knows more than I," I replied, shifting the burden to him; "my acquaintance is only of yesterday; his is lifelong."