"Why have you never told me of her?" she demanded, turning to the Duke.
"Haven't I told you of the little Meredith girl? Surely I have," said The Duke, hesitatingly.
"Now, you know quite well you have not, and that means you are deeply interested. Oh, I know you well," she said, severely.
"He is the most secretive man," she went on to me, "shamefully and ungratefully reserved."
The Duke smiled; then said, lazily: "Why, she's just a child. Why should you be interested in her? No one was," he added sadly, "till misfortune distinguished her."
Her eyes grew soft, and her gay manner changed, and she said to The Duke gently: "Tell me of her now."
It was evidently an effort, but he began his story of Gwen from the time he saw her first, years ago, playing in and out of her father's rambling shack, shy and wild as a young fox. As he went on with his tale, his voice dropped into a low, musical tone, and he seemed as if dreaming aloud. Unconsciously he put into the tale much of himself, revealing how great an influence the little child had had upon him, and how empty of love his life had been in this lonely land. Lady Charlotte listened with face intent upon him, and even her bluff husband was conscious that something more than usual was happening. He had never heard The Duke break through his proud reserve before.
But when The Duke told the story of Gwen's awful fall, which he did with great graphic power, a little red spot burned upon the Lady Charlotte's pale cheek, and, as The Duke finished his tale with the words, "It was her last ride," she covered her face with her hands and cried:
"Oh, Duke, it is horrible to think of! But what splendid courage!"
"Great stuff! eh, Duke?" cried the Hon. Fred, kicking a burning log vigorously.
But The Duke made no reply.
"How is she now, Duke?" said Lady Charlotte. The Duke looked up as from a dream. "Bright as the morning," he said. Then, in reply to Lady Charlotte's look of wonder, he added:
"The Pilot did it. Connor will tell you. I don't understand it."
"Nor do I, either. But I can tell you only what I saw and heard," I answered.
"Tell me," said Lady Charlotte very gently.
Then I told her how, one by one, we had failed to help her, and how The Pilot had ridden up that morning through the canyon, and how he had brought the first light and peace to her by his marvellous pictures of the flowers and ferns and trees and all the wonderful mysteries of that wonderful canyon.
"But that wasn't all," said the Duke quickly, as I stopped.
"No," I said slowly, "that was NOT all by a long way; but the rest I don't understand. That's The Pilot's secret."
"Tell me what he did," said Lady Charlotte, softly, once more. "I want to know."
"I don't think I can," I replied. "He simply read out of the Scriptures to her and talked."
Lady Charlotte looked disappointed.
"Is that all?" she said.
"It is quite enough for Gwen," said The Duke confidently, "for there she lies, often suffering, always longing for the hills and the free air, but with her face radiant as the flowers of the beloved canyon."
"I must see her," said Lady Charlotte, "and that wonderful Pilot."
"You'll be disappointed in him," said The Duke.
"Oh, I've see him and heard him, but I don't know him," she replied. "There must be something in him that one does not see at first."
"So I have discovered," said The Duke, and with that the subject was dropped, but not before the Lady Charlotte made me promise to take her to Gwen, The Duke being strangely unwilling to do this for her.
"You'll be disappointed," he said. "She is only a simple little child."
But Lady Charlotte thought differently, and, having made up her mind upon the matter, there was nothing for it, as her husband said, but "for all hands to surrender and the sooner the better."
And so the Lady Charlotte had her way, which, as it turned out, was much the wisest and best.
THROUGH GWEN'S WINDOW
When I told The Pilot of Lady Charlotte's purpose to visit Gwen, he was not too well pleased.
"What does she want with Gwen?" he said impatiently. "She will just put notions into her head and make the child discontented."
"Why should she?" said I.
"She won't mean to, but she belongs to another world, and Gwen cannot talk to her without getting glimpses of a life that will make her long for what she can never have," said The Pilot.
"But suppose it is not idle curiosity in Lady Charlotte," I suggested.
"I don't say it is quite that," he answered, "but these people love a sensation."
"I don't think you know Lady Charlotte," I replied. "I hardly think from her tone the other night that she is a sensation hunter."
"At any rate," he answered, decidedly, "she is not to worry poor Gwen."
I was a little surprised at his attitude, and felt that he was unfair to Lady Charlotte, but I forbore to argue with him on the matter. He could not bear to think of any person or thing threatening the peace of his beloved Gwen.
The very first Saturday after my promise was given we were surprised to see Lady Charlotte ride up to the door of our shack in the early morning.
"You see, I am not going to let you off," she said, as I greeted her. "And the day is so very fine for a ride."
I hastened to apologize for not going to her, and then to get out of my difficulty, rather meanly turned toward The Pilot, and said:
"The Pilot doesn't approve of our visit."
"And why not, may I ask?" said Lady Charlotte, lifting her eyebrows.
The Pilot's face burned, partly with wrath at me, and partly with embarrassment; for Lady Charlotte had put on her grand air. But he stood to his guns.
"I was saying, Lady Charlotte," he said, looking straight into her eyes, "that you and Gwen have little in common—and—and—" he hesitated.
"Little in common!" said Lady Charlotte quietly. "She has suffered greatly."
The Pilot was quick to catch the note of sadness in her voice.
"Yes," he said, wondering at her tone, "she has suffered greatly."
"And," continued Lady Charlotte, "she is bright as the morning, The Duke says." There was a look of pain in her face.
The Pilot's face lit up, and he came nearer and laid his hand caressingly upon her beautiful horse.
"Yes, thank God!" he said quickly, "bright as the morning."
"How can that be?" she asked, looking down into his face. "Perhaps she would tell me."
"Lady Charlotte," said The Pilot with a sudden flush, "I must ask your pardon. I was wrong. I thought you—" he paused; "but go to Gwen, she will tell you, and you will do her good."
"Thank you," said Lady Charlotte, putting out her hand, "and perhaps you will come and see me, too."
The Pilot promised and stood looking after us as we rode up the trail.
"There is something more in your Pilot than at first appears," she said. "The Duke was quite right."
"He is a great man," I said with enthusiasm; "tender as a woman and with the heart of a hero."
"You and Bill and The Duke seem to agree about him," she said, smiling.
Then I told her tales of The Pilot, and of his ways with the men, till her blue eyes grew bright and her beautiful face lost its proud look.
"It is perfectly amazing," I said, finishing my story, "how these devil-may-care rough fellows respect him, and come to him in all sorts of trouble. I can't understand it, and yet he is just a boy."
"No, not amazing," said Lady Charlotte slowly. "I think I understand it. He has a true man's heart; and holds a great purpose in it. I've seen men like that. Not clergymen, I mean, but men with a great purpose."
Then, after a moment's thought, she added: "But you ought to care for him better. He does not look strong."
"Strong!" I exclaimed quickly, with a queer feeling of resentment at my heart. "He can do as much riding as any of us."
"Still," she replied, "there's something in his face that would make his mother anxious." In spite of my repudiation of her suggestion, I found myself for the next few minutes thinking of how he would come exhausted and faint from his long rides, and I resolved that he must have a rest and change.
It was one of those early September days, the best of all in the western country, when the light falls less fiercely through a soft haze that seems to fill the air about you, and that grows into purple on the far hilltops. By the time we reached the canyon the sun was riding high and pouring its rays full into all the deep nooks where the shadows mostly lay.
There were no shadows to-day, except such as the trees cast upon the green moss beds and the black rocks. The tops of the tall elms were sere and rusty, but the leaves of the rugged oaks that fringed the canyon's lips shone a rich and glossy brown. All down the sides the poplars and delicate birches, pale yellow, but sometimes flushing into orange and red, stood shimmering in the golden light, while here and there the broad-spreading, feathery sumachs made great splashes of brilliant crimson upon the yellow and gold. Down in the bottom stood the cedars and the balsams, still green. We stood some moments silently gazing into this tangle of interlacing boughs and shimmering leaves, all glowing in yellow light, then Lady Charlotte broke the silence in tones soft and reverent as if she stood in a great cathedral.
"And this is Gwen's canyon!"
"Yes, but she never sees it now," I said, for I could never ride through without thinking of the child to whose heart this was so dear, but whose eyes never rested upon it. Lady Charlotte made no reply, and we took the trail that wound down into this maze of mingling colors and lights and shadows. Everywhere lay the fallen leaves, brown and yellow and gold;—everywhere on our trail, on the green mosses and among the dead ferns. And as we rode, leaves fluttered down from the trees above silently through the tangled boughs, and lay with the others on moss and rock and beaten trail.
The flowers were all gone; but the Little Swan sang as ever its many-voiced song, as it flowed in pools and eddies and cascades, with here and there a golden leaf upon its black waters. Ah! how often in weary, dusty days these sights and sounds and silences have come to me and brought my heart rest!
As we began to climb up into the open, I glanced at my companion's face. The canyon had done its work with her as with all who loved it. The touch of pride that was the habit of her face was gone, and in its place rested the earnest wonder of a little child, while in her eyes lay the canyon's tender glow. And with this face she looked in upon Gwen.
And Gwen, who had been waiting for her, forgot all her nervous fear, and with hands outstretched, cried out in welcome:
"Oh, I'm so glad! You've seen it and I know you love it! My canyon, you know!" she went on, answering Lady Charlotte's mystified look.
"Yes, dear child," said Lady Charlotte, bending over the pale face with its halo of golden hair, "I love it." But she could get no further, for her eyes were full of tears. Gwen gazed up into the beautiful face, wondering at her silence, and then said gently:
"Tell me how it looks to-day! The Pilot always shows it to me. Do you know," she added, thoughtfully, "The Pilot looks like it himself. He makes me think of it, and—and—" she went on shyly, "you do, too."
By this time Lady Charlotte was kneeling by the couch, smoothing the beautiful hair and gently touching the face so pale and lined with pain.
"That is a great honor, truly," she said brightly through her tears—"to be like your canyon and like your Pilot, too."
Gwen nodded, but she was not to be denied.
"Tell me how it looks to-day," she said. "I want to see it. Oh, I want to see it!"
Lady Charlotte was greatly moved by the yearning in the voice, but, controlling herself, she said gaily:
"Oh, I can't show it to you as your Pilot can, but I'll tell you what I saw."
"Turn me where I can see," said Gwen to me, and I wheeled her toward the window and raised her up so that she could look down the trail toward the canyon's mouth.
"Now," she said, after the pain of the lifting had passed, "tell me, please."
Then Lady Charlotte set the canyon before her in rich and radiant coloring, while Gwen listened, gazing down upon the trail to where the elm tops could be seen, rusty and sere.
"Oh, it is lovely!" said Gwen, "and I see it so well. It is all there before me when I look through my window."
But Lady Charlotte looked at her, wondering to see her bright smile, and at last she could not help the question:
"But don't you weary to see it with your own eyes?"
"Yes," said Gwen gently, "often I want and want it, oh, so much!"
"And then, Gwen, dear, how can you bear it?" Her voice was eager and earnest. "Tell me, Gwen. I have heard all about your canyon flowers, but I can't understand how the fretting and the pain went away."
Gwen looked at her first in amazement, and then in dawning understanding.
"Have you a canyon, too?" she asked, gravely.
Lady Charlotte paused a moment, then nodded. It did appear strange to me that she should break down her proud reserve and open her heart to this child.
"And there are no flowers, Gwen, not one," she said rather bitterly, "nor sun nor seeds nor soil, I fear."
"Oh, if The Pilot were here, he would tell you."
At this point, feeling that they would rather be alone, I excused myself on the pretext of looking after the horses.
What they talked of during the next hour I never knew, but when I returned to the room Lady Charlotte was reading slowly and with perplexed face to Gwen out of her mother's Bible the words "for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor."
"You see even for Him, suffering," Gwen said eagerly, "but I can't explain. The Pilot will make it clear." Then the talk ended.
We had lunch with Gwen—bannocks and fresh sweet milk and blueberries—and after an hour of gay fun we came away.
Lady Charlotte kissed her tenderly as she bade Gwen good-by.
"You must let me come again and sit at your window," she said, smiling down upon the wan face.
"Oh, I shall watch for you. How good that will be!" cried Gwen, delightedly. "How many come to see me! You make five." Then she added, softly: "You will write your letter." But Lady Charlotte shook her head.
"I can't do that, I fear," she said, "but I shall think of it."
It was a bright face that looked out upon us through the open window as we rode down the trail. Just before we took the dip into the canyon, I turned to wave my hand.
"Gwen's friends always wave from here," I said, wheeling my bronco.
Again and again Lady Charlotte waved her handkerchief.
"How beautiful, but how wonderful!" she said as if to herself. "Truly, HER canyon is full of flowers."
"It is quite beyond me," I answered. "The Pilot may explain."
"Is there anything your Pilot can't do?" said Lady Charlotte.
"Try him," I ventured.
"I mean to," she replied, "but I cannot bring anyone to my canyon, I fear," she added in an uncertain voice.
As I left her at her door she thanked me with courteous grace.
"You have done a great deal for me," she said, giving me her hand. "It has been a beautiful, a wonderful day."
When I told the Pilot all the day's doings, he burst out:
"What a stupid and self-righteous fool I have been! I never thought there could be any canyon in her life. How short our sight is!" and all that night I could get almost no words from him.
That was the first of many visits to Gwen. Not a week passed but Lady Charlotte took the trail to the Meredith ranch and spent an hour at Gwen's window. Often The Pilot found her there. But though they were always pleasant hours to him, he would come home in great trouble about Lady Charlotte.
"She is perfectly charming and doing Gwen no end of good, but she is proud as an archangel. Has had an awful break with her family at home, and it is spoiling her life. She told me so much, but she will allow no one to touch the affair."
But one day we met her riding toward the village. As we drew near, she drew up her horse and held up a letter.
"Home!" she said. "I wrote it to-day, and I must get it off immediately."
The Pilot understood her at once, but he only said:
"Good!" but with such emphasis that we both laughed.
"Yes, I hope so," she said with the red beginning to show in her cheek. "I have dropped some seed into my canyon."
"I think I see the flowers beginning to spring," said The Pilot.
She shook her head doubtfully and replied:
"I shall ride up and sit with Gwen at her window."
"Do," replied The Pilot, "the light is good there. Wonderful things are to be seen through Gwen's window."
"Yes," said Lady Charlotte softly. "Dear Gwen!—but I fear it is often made bright with tears."
As she spoke she wheeled her horse and cantered off, for her own tears were not far away. I followed her in thought up the trail winding through the round-topped hills and down through the golden lights of the canyon and into Gwen's room. I could see the pale face, with its golden aureole, light up and glow, as they sat before the window while Lady Charlotte would tell her how Gwen's Canyon looked to-day and how in her own bleak canyon there was the sign of flowers.
HOW BILL FAVORED "HOME-GROWN INDUSTRIES"
The building of the Swan Creek Church made a sensation in the country, and all the more that Bronco Bill was in command.
"When I put up money I stay with the game," he announced; and stay he did, to the great benefit of the work and to the delight of The Pilot, who was wearing his life out in trying to do several men's work. It was Bill that organized the gangs for hauling stone for the foundation and logs for the walls. It was Bill that assigned the various jobs to those volunteering service. To Robbie Muir and two stalwart Glengarry men from the Ottawa lumber region, who knew all about the broadaxe, he gave the hewing down of the logs that formed the walls. And when they had done, Bill declared they were "better 'an a sawmill." It was Bill, too, that did the financing, and his passage with Williams, the storekeeper from "the other side" who dealt in lumber and building material, was such as established forever Bill's reputation in finance.
With The Pilot's plans in his hands he went to Williams, seizing a time when the store was full of men after their mail matter.
"What do you think ov them plans?" he asked innocently.
Williams was voluble with opinions and criticism and suggestions, all of which were gratefully, even humbly received.
"Kind ov hard to figger out jest how much lumber 'll go into the shack," said Bill; "ye see the logs makes a difference."
To Williams the thing was simplicity itself, and, after some figuring, he handed Bill a complete statement of the amount of lumber of all kinds that would be required.
"Now, what would that there come to?"
Williams named his figure, and then Bill entered upon negotiations.
"I aint no man to beat down prices. No, sir, I say give a man his figger. Of course, this here aint my funeral; besides, bein' a Gospel shop, the price naterally would be different." To this the boys all assented and Williams looked uncomfortable.
"In fact," and Bill adopted his public tone to Hi's admiration and joy, "this here's a public institooshun" (this was Williams' own thunder), "condoocin' to the good of the community" (Hi slapped his thigh and squirted half way across the store to signify his entire approval), "and I cherish the opinion"—(delighted chuckle from Hi)—"that public men are interested in this concern."
"That's so! Right you are!" chorused the boys gravely.
Williams agreed, but declared he had thought of all this in making his calculation. But seeing it was a church, and the first church and their own church, he would make a cut, which he did after more figuring. Bill gravely took the slip of paper and put it into his pocket without a word. By the end of the week, having in the meantime ridden into town and interviewed the dealers there, Bill sauntered into the store and took up his position remote from Williams.
"You'll be wanting that sheeting, won't you, next week, Bill?" said Williams.
"What sheetin' 's that?"
"Why, for the church. Aint the logs up?"
"Yes, that's so. I was just goin' to see the boys here about gettin' it hauled," said Bill.
"Hauled!" said Williams, in amazed indignation. "Aint you goin' to stick to your deal?"
"I generally make it my custom to stick to my deals," said Bill, looking straight at Williams.
"Well, what about your deal with me last Monday night?" said Williams, angrily.
"Let's see. Last Monday night," said Bill, apparently thinking back; "can't say as I remember any pertickler deal. Any ov you fellers remember?"
No one could recall any deal.
"You don't remember getting any paper from me, I suppose?" said Williams, sarcastically.
"Paper! Why, I believe I've got that there paper onto my person at this present moment," said Bill, diving into his pocket and drawing out Williams' estimate. He spent a few moments in careful scrutiny.
"There ain't no deal onto this as I can see," said Bill, gravely passing the paper to the boys, who each scrutinized it and passed it on with a shake of the head or a remark as to the absence of any sign of a deal. Williams changed his tone. For his part, he was indifferent in the matter.
Then Bill made him an offer.
"Ov course, I believe in supportin' home-grown industries, and if you can touch my figger I'd be uncommonly glad to give you the contract."
But Bill's figure, which was quite fifty per cent. lower than Williams' best offer, was rejected as quite impossible.
"Thought I'd make you the offer," said Bill, carelessly, "seein' as you're institootin' the trade and the boys here 'll all be buildin' more or less, and I believe in standin' up for local trades and manufactures." There were nods of approval on all sides, and Williams was forced to accept, for Bill began arranging with the Hill brothers and Hi to make an early start on Monday. It was a great triumph, but Bill displayed no sign of elation; he was rather full of sympathy for Williams, and eager to help on the lumber business as a local "institooshun."
Second in command in the church building enterprise stood Lady Charlotte, and under her labored the Hon. Fred, The Duke, and, indeed, all the company of the Noble Seven. Her home became the centre of a new type of social life. With exquisite tact, and much was needed for this kind of work, she drew the bachelors from their lonely shacks and from their wild carousals, and gave them a taste of the joys of a pure home-life, the first they had had since leaving the old homes years ago. And then she made them work for the church with such zeal and diligence that her husband and The Duke declared that ranching had become quite an incidental interest since the church-building had begun. But The Pilot went about with a radiant look on his pale face, while Bill gave it forth as his opinion, "though she was a leetle high in the action, she could hit an uncommon gait."
With such energy did Bill push the work of construction that by the first of December the church stood roofed, sheeted, floored and ready for windows, doors and ceiling, so that The Pilot began to hope that he should see the desire of his heart fulfilled—the church of Swan Creek open for divine service on Christmas Day.
During these weeks there was more than church-building going on, for while the days were given to the shaping of logs, and the driving of nails and the planing of boards, the long winter evenings were spent in talk around the fire in my shack, where The Pilot for some months past had made his home and where Bill, since the beginning of the church building, had come "to camp." Those were great nights for The Pilot and Bill, and, indeed, for me, too, and the other boys, who, after a day's work on the church, were always brought in by Bill or The Pilot.
Great nights for us all they were. After bacon and beans and bannocks, and occasionally potatoes, and rarely a pudding, with coffee, rich and steaming, to wash all down, pipes would follow, and then yarns of adventures, possible and impossible, all exciting and wonderful, and all received with the greatest credulity.
If, however, the powers of belief were put to too great a strain by a tale of more than ordinary marvel, Bill would follow with one of such utter impossibility that the company would feel that the limit had been reached, and the yarns would cease. But after the first week most of the time was given to The Pilot, who would read to us of the deeds of the mighty men of old, who had made and wrecked empires.
What happy nights they were to those cowboys, who had been cast up like driftwood upon this strange and lonely shore! Some of them had never known what it was to have a thought beyond the work and sport of the day. And the world into which The Pilot was ushering them was all new and wonderful to them. Happy nights, without a care, but that The Pilot would not get the ghastly look out of his face, and laughed at the idea of going away till the church was built. And, indeed, we would all have sorely missed him, and so he stayed.
HOW BILL HIT THE TRAIL
When "the crowd" was with us The Pilot read us all sorts of tales of adventures in all lands by heroes of all ages, but when we three sat together by our fire The Pilot would always read us tales of the heroes of sacred story, and these delighted Bill more than those of any of the ancient empires of the past. He had his favorites. Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, never failed to arouse his admiration. But Jacob was to him always "a mean cuss," and David he could not appreciate. Most of all he admired Moses and the Apostle Paul, whom he called "that little chap." But, when the reading was about the One Great Man that moved majestic amid the gospel stories, Bill made no comments; He was too high for approval.
By and by Bill began to tell these tales to the boys, and one night, when a quiet mood had fallen upon the company, Bill broke the silence.
"Say, Pilot, where was it that the little chap got mixed up into that riot?"
"Riot!" said The Pilot.
"Yes; you remember when he stood off the whole gang from the stairs?"
"Oh, yes, at Jerusalem!"
"Yes, that's the spot. Perhaps you would read that to the boys. Good yarn! Little chap, you know, stood up and told 'em they were all sorts of blanked thieves and cut-throats, and stood 'em off. Played it alone, too."
Most of the boys failed to recognize the story in its new dress. There was much interest.
"Who was the duck? Who was the gang? What was the row about?"
"The Pilot here'll tell you. If you'd kind o' give 'em a lead before you begin, they'd catch on to the yarn better." This last to The Pilot, who was preparing to read.
"Well, it was at Jerusalem," began The Pilot, when Bill interrupted:
"If I might remark, perhaps it might help the boys on to the trail mebbe, if you'd tell 'em how the little chap struck his new gait." So he designated the Apostle's conversion.
Then The Pilot introduced the Apostle with some formality to the company, describing with such vivid touches his life and early training, his sudden wrench from all he held dear, under the stress of a new conviction, his magnificent enthusiasm and courage, his tenderness and patience, that I was surprised to find myself regarding him as a sort of hero, and the boys were all ready to back him against any odds. As The Pilot read the story of the Arrest at Jerusalem, stopping now and then to picture the scene, we saw it all and were in the thick of it. The raging crowd hustling and beating the life out of the brave little man, the sudden thrust of the disciplined Roman guard through the mass, the rescue, the pause on the stairway, the calm face of the little hero beckoning for a hearing, the quieting of the frantic, frothing mob, the fearless speech—all passed before us. The boys were thrilled.
"Good stuff, eh?"
"Ain't he a daisy?"
"Daisy! He's a whole sunflower patch!"
"Yes," drawled Bill, highly appreciating their marks of approval. "That's what I call a partickler fine character of a man. There ain't no manner of insecks on to him."
"You bet!" said Hi.
"I say," broke in one of the boys, who was just emerging from the tenderfoot stage, "o' course that's in the Bible, ain't it?"
The Pilot assented.
"Well, how do you know it's true?"
The Pilot was proceeding to elaborate his argument when Bill cut in somewhat more abruptly than was his wont.
"Look here, young feller!" Bill's voice was in the tone of command. The man looked as he was bid. "How do you know anything's true? How do you know The Pilot here's true when he speaks? Can't you tell by the feel? You know by the sound of his voice, don't you?" Bill paused and the young fellow agreed readily.
"Well how do you know a blanked son of a she jackass when you see him?" Again Bill paused. There was no reply.
"Well," said Bill, resuming his deliberate drawl. "I'll give you the information without extra charge. It's by the sound he makes when he opens his blanked jaw."
"But," went on the young skeptic, nettled at the laugh that went round, "that don't prove anything. You know," turning to The Pilot, "that there are heaps of people who don't believe the Bible."
The Pilot nodded.
"Some of the smartest, best-educated men are agnostics," proceeded the young man, warming to his theme, and failing to notice the stiffening of Bill's lank figure. "I don't know but what I am one myself."
"That so?" said Bill, with sudden interest.
"I guess so," was the modest reply.
"Got it bad?" went on Bill, with a note of anxiety in his tone.
But the young man turned to The Pilot and tried to open a fresh argument.
"Whatever he's got," said Bill to the others, in a mild voice, "it's spoilin' his manners."
"Yes," went on Bill, meditatively, after the slight laugh had died, "it's ruinin' to the judgment. He don't seem to know when he interferes with the game. Pity, too."
Still the argument went on.
"Seems as if he ought to take somethin'," said Bill, in a voice suspiciously mild. "What would you suggest?"
"A walk, mebbe!" said Hi, in delighted expectation.
"I hold the opinion that you have mentioned an uncommonly vallable remedy, better'n Pain Killer almost."
Bill rose languidly.
"I say," he drawled, tapping the young fellow, "it appears to me a little walk would perhaps be good, mebbe."
"All right, wait till I get my cap," was the unsuspecting reply.
"I don't think perhaps you won't need it, mebbe. I cherish the opinion you'll, perhaps, be warm enough." Bill's voice had unconsciously passed into a sterner tone. Hi was on his feet and at the door.
"This here interview is private AND confidential," said Bill to his partner.
"Exactly," said Hi, opening the door. At this the young fellow, who was a strapping six-footer, but soft and flabby, drew back and refused to go. He was too late. Bill's grip was on his collar and out they went into the snow, and behind them Hi closed the door. In vain the young fellow struggled to wrench himself free from the hands that had him by the shoulder and the back of the neck. I took it all in from the window. He might have been a boy for all the effect his plungings had upon the long, sinewy arms that gripped him so fiercely. After a minute's furious struggle the young fellow stood quiet, when Bill suddenly shifted his grip from the shoulder to the seat of his buckskin trousers. Then began a series of evolutions before the house—up and down, forward and back, which the unfortunate victim, with hands wildly clutching at empty air, was quite powerless to resist till he was brought up panting and gasping, subdued, to a standstill.
"I'll larn you agnostics and several other kinds of ticks," said Bill, in a terrible voice, his drawl lengthening perceptibly. "Come round here, will you, and shove your blanked second-handed trash down our throats?" Bill paused to get words; then, bursting out in rising wrath:
"There ain't no sootable words for sich conduct. By the livin' Jeminy—" He suddenly swung his prisoner off his feet, lifted him bodily, and held him over his head at arm's length. "I've a notion to—"
"Don't! don't! for Heaven's sake!" cried the struggling wretch, "I'll stop it! I will!"
Bill at once lowered him and set him on his feet.
"All right! Shake!" he said, holding out his hand, which the other took with caution.
It was a remarkably sudden conversion and lasting in its effects. There was no more agnosticism in the little group that gathered around The Pilot for the nightly reading.
The interest in the reading kept growing night by night.
"Seems as if The Pilot was gittin' in his work," said Bill to me; and looking at the grave, eager faces, I agreed. He was getting in his work with Bill, too; though perhaps Bill did not know it. I remember one night, when the others had gone, The Pilot was reading to us the Parable of the Talents, Bill was particularly interested in the servant who failed in his duty.
"Ornery cuss, eh?" he remarked; "and gall, too, eh? Served him blamed well right, in my opinion!"
But when the practical bearing of the parable became clear to him, after long silence, he said, slowly:
"Well, that there seems to indicate that it's about time for me to get a rustle on." Then, after another silence, he said, hesitatingly, "This here church-buildin' business now, do you think that'll perhaps count, mebbe? I guess not, eh? 'Tain't much, o' course, anyway." Poor Bill, he was like a child, and The Pilot handled him with a mother's touch.
"What are you best at, Bill?"
"Bronco-bustin' and cattle," said Bill, wonderingly; "that's my line."
"Well, Bill, my line is preaching just now, and piloting, you know." The Pilot's smile was like a sunbeam on a rainy day, for there were tears in his eyes and voice. "And we have just got to be faithful. You see what he says: 'Well done, good and FAITHFUL servant. Thou hast been FAITHFUL.'"
Bill was puzzled.
"Faithful!" he repeated. "Does that mean with the cattle, perhaps?"
"Yes, that's just it, Bill, and with everything else that comes your way."
And Bill never forgot that lesson, for I heard him, with a kind of quiet enthusiasm, giving it to Hi as a great find. "Now, I call that a fair deal," he said to his friend; "gives every man a show. No cards up the sleeve."
"That's so," was Hi's thoughtful reply; "distributes the trumps."
Somehow Bill came to be regarded as an authority upon questions of religion and morals. No one ever accused him of "gettin' religion." He went about his work in his slow, quiet way, but he was always sharing his discoveries with "the boys." And if anyone puzzled him with subtleties he never rested till he had him face to face with The Pilot. And so it came that these two drew to each other with more than brotherly affection. When Bill got into difficulty with problems that have vexed the souls of men far wiser than he, The Pilot would either disentangle the knots or would turn his mind to the verities that stood out sure and clear, and Bill would be content.
"That's good enough for me," he would say, and his heart would be at rest.
HOW THE SWAN CREEK CHURCH WAS OPENED
When, near the end of the year, The Pilot fell sick, Bill nursed him like a mother and sent him off for a rest and change to Gwen, forbidding him to return till the church was finished and visiting him twice a week. The love between the two was most beautiful, and, when I find my heart grow hard and unbelieving in men and things, I let my mind wander back to a scene that I came upon in front of Gwen's house. These two were standing alone in the clear moonlight, Bill with his hand upon The Pilot's shoulder, and The Pilot with his arm around Bill's neck.
"Dear old Bill," The Pilot was saying, "dear old Bill," and the voice was breaking into a sob. And Bill, standing stiff and straight, looked up at the stars, coughed and swallowed hard for some moments, and said, in a queer, croaky voice:
"Shouldn't wonder if a Chinook would blow up."
"Chinook?" laughed The Pilot, with a catch in his voice. "You dear old humbug," and he stood watching till the lank form swayed down into the canyon.
The day of the church opening came, as all days, however long waited for, will come—a bright, beautiful Christmas Day. The air was still and full of frosty light, as if arrested by a voice of command, waiting the word to move. The hills lay under their dazzling coverlets, asleep. Back of all, the great peaks lifted majestic heads out of the dark forests and gazed with calm, steadfast faces upon the white, sunlit world. To-day, as the light filled up the cracks that wrinkled their hard faces, they seemed to smile, as if the Christmas joy had somehow moved something in their old, stony hearts.
The people were all there—farmers, ranchers, cowboys, wives and children—all happy, all proud of their new church, and now all expectant, waiting for The Pilot and the Old Timer, who were to drive down if The Pilot was fit and were to bring Gwen if the day was fine. As the time passed on, Bill, as master of ceremonies, began to grow uneasy. Then Indian Joe appeared and handed a note to Bill. He read it, grew gray in the face and passed it to me. Looking, I saw in poor, wavering lines the words, "Dear Bill. Go on with the opening. Sing the Psalm, you know the one, and say a prayer, and oh, come to me quick, Bill. Your Pilot."
Bill gradually pulled himself together, announced in a strange voice, "The Pilot can't come," handed me the Psalm, and said:
"Make them sing."
It was that grand Psalm for all hill peoples, "I to the hills will lift mine eyes," and with wondering faces they sang the strong, steadying words. After the Psalm was over the people sat and waited, Bill looked at the Hon. Fred Ashley, then at Robbie Muir, then said to me in a low voice:
"Kin you make a prayer?"
I shook my head, ashamed as I did so of my cowardice.
Again Bill paused, then said:
"The Pilot says there's got to be a prayer. Kin anyone make one?"
Again dead, solemn silence.
Then Hi, who was near the back, said, coming to his partner's help:
"What's the matter with you trying, yourself, Bill?"
The red began to come up in Bill's white face.
"'Taint in my line. But The Pilot says there's got to be a prayer, and I'm going to stay with the game." Then, leaning on the pulpit, he said:
"Let's pray," and began:
"God Almighty, I ain't no good at this, and perhaps you'll understand if I don't put things right." Then a pause followed, during which I heard some of the women beginning to sob.
"What I want to say," Bill went on, "is, we're mighty glad about this church, which we know it's you and The Pilot that's worked it. And we're all glad to chip in."
Then again he paused, and, looking up, I saw his hard, gray face working and two tears stealing down his cheeks. Then he started again:
"But about The Pilot—I don't want to persoom—but if you don't mind, we'd like to have him stay—in fact, don't see how we kin do without him—look at all the boys here; he's just getting his work in and is bringin' 'em right along, and, God Almighty, if you take him away it might be a good thing for himself, but for us—oh, God," the voice quivered and was silent "Amen."
Then someone, I think it must have been the Lady Charlotte, began: "Our Father," and all joined that could join, to the end. For a few moments Bill stood up, looking at them silently. Then, as if remembering his duty, he said:
"This here church is open. Excuse me."
He stood at the door, gave a word of direction to Hi, who had followed him out, and leaping on his bronco shook him out into a hard gallop.
The Swan Creek Church was opened. The form of service may not have been correct, but, if great love counts for anything and appealing faith, then all that was necessary was done.
THE PILOT'S LAST PORT
In the old times a funeral was regarded in the Swan Creek country as a kind of solemn festivity. In those days, for the most part, men died in their boots and were planted with much honor and loyal libation. There was often neither shroud nor coffin, and in the Far West many a poor fellow lies as he fell, wrapped in his own or his comrade's blanket.
It was the manager of the X L Company's ranch that introduced crape. The occasion was the funeral of one of the ranch cowboys, killed by his bronco, but when the pall-bearers and mourners appeared with bands and streamers of crape, this was voted by the majority as "too gay." That circumstance alone was sufficient to render that funeral famous, but it was remembered, too, as having shocked the proprieties in another and more serious manner. No one would be so narrow-minded as to object to the custom of the return procession falling into a series of horse-races of the wildest description, and ending up at Latour's in a general riot. But to race with the corpse was considered bad form. The "corpse-driver," as he was called, could hardly be blamed on this occasion. His acknowledged place was at the head of the procession, and it was a point of honor that that place should be retained. The fault clearly lay with the driver of the X L ranch sleigh, containing the mourners (an innovation, by the way), who felt aggrieved that Hi Kendal, driving the Ashley team with the pall-bearers (another innovation), should be given the place of honor next the corpse. The X L driver wanted to know what, in the name of all that was black and blue, the Ashley Ranch had to do with the funeral? Whose was that corpse, anyway? Didn't it belong to the X L ranch? Hi, on the other hand, contended that the corpse was in charge of the pall-bearers. "It was their duty to see it right to the grave, and if they were not on hand, how was it goin' to get there? They didn't expect it would git up and get there by itself, did they? Hi didn't want no blanked mourners foolin' round that corp till it was properly planted; after that they might git in their work." But the X L driver could not accept this view, and at the first opportunity slipped past Hi and his pall-bearers and took the place next the sleigh that carried the coffin. It is possible that Hi might have borne with this affront and loss of position with even mind, but the jeering remarks of the mourners as they slid past triumphantly could not be endured, and the next moment the three teams were abreast in a race as for dear life. The corpse-driver, having the advantage of the beaten track, soon left the other two behind running neck and neck for second place, which was captured finally by Hi and maintained to the grave side, in spite of many attempts on the part of the X L's. The whole proceeding, however, was considered quite improper, and at Latour's, that night, after full and bibulous discussion, it was agreed that the corpse-driver fairly distributed the blame. "For his part," he said, "he knew he hadn't ought to make no corp git any such move on, but he wasn't goin' to see that there corp take second place at his own funeral. Not if he could help it. And as for the others, he thought that the pall-bearers had a blanked sight more to do with the plantin' than them giddy mourners."
But when they gathered at the Meredith ranch to carry out The Pilot to his grave it was felt that the Foothill Country was called to a new experience. They were all there. The men from the Porcupine and from beyond the Fort, the Police with the Inspector in command, all the farmers for twenty miles around, and of course all the ranchers and cowboys of the Swan Creek country. There was no effort at repression. There was no need, for in the cowboys, for the first time in their experience, there was no heart for fun. And as they rode up and hitched their horses to the fence, or drove their sleighs into the yard and took off the bells, there was no loud-voiced salutation, no guying nor chaffing, but with silent nod they took their places in the crowd about the door or passed into the kitchen.
The men from the Porcupine could not quite understand the gloomy silence. It was something unprecedented in a country where men laughed all care to scorn and saluted death with a nod. But they were quick to read signs, and with characteristic courtesy they fell in with the mood they could not understand. There is no man living so quick to feel your mood, and so ready to adapt himself to it, as is the true Westerner.
This was the day of the cowboy's grief. To the rest of the community The Pilot was preacher; to them he was comrade and friend. They had been slow to admit him to their confidence, but steadily he had won his place with them, till within the last few months they had come to count him as of themselves. He had ridden the range with them; he had slept in their shacks and cooked his meals on their tin stoves; and, besides, he was Bill's chum. That alone was enough to give him a right to all they owned. He was theirs, and they were only beginning to take full pride in him when he passed out from them, leaving an emptiness in their life new and unexplained. No man in that country had ever shown concern for them, nor had it occurred to them that any man could, till The Pilot came. It took them long to believe that the interest he showed in them was genuine and not simply professional. Then, too, from a preacher they had expected chiefly pity, warning, rebuke. The Pilot astonished them by giving them respect, admiration, and open-hearted affection. It was months before they could get over their suspicion that he was humbugging them. When once they did, they gave him back without knowing it all the trust and love of their big, generous hearts. He had made this world new to some of them, and to all had given glimpses of the next. It was no wonder that they stood in dumb groups about the house where the man, who had done all this for them and had been all this to them lay dead.
There was no demonstration of grief. The Duke was in command, and his quiet, firm voice, giving directions, helped all to self-control. The women who were gathered in the middle room were weeping quietly. Bill was nowhere to be seen, but near the inner door sat Gwen in her chair, with Lady Charlotte beside her, holding her hand. Her face, worn with long suffering, was pale, but serene as the morning sky, and with not a trace of tears. As my eye caught hers, she beckoned me to her.
"Where's Bill?" she said. "Bring him in."
I found him at the back of the house.
"Aren't you coming in, Bill?" I said.
"No; I guess there's plenty without me," he said, in his slow way.
"You'd better come in; the service is going to begin," I urged.
"Don't seem as if I cared for to hear anythin' much. I ain't much used to preachin', anyway," said Bill, with careful indifference, but he added to himself, "except his, of course."
"Come in, Bill," I urged. "It will look queer, you know," but Bill replied:
"I guess I'll not bother," adding, after a pause: "You see, there's them wimmin turnin' on the waterworks, and like as not they'd swamp me sure."
"That's so," said Hi, who was standing near, in silent sympathy with his friend's grief.
I reported to Gwen, who answered in her old imperious way, "Tell him I want him." I took Bill the message.
"Why didn't you say so before?" he said, and, starting up, he passed into the house and took up his position behind Gwen's chair. Opposite, and leaning against the door, stood The Duke, with a look of quiet earnestness on his handsome face. At his side stood the Hon. Fred Ashley, and behind him the Old Timer, looking bewildered and woe-stricken. The Pilot had filled a large place in the old man's life. The rest of the men stood about the room and filled the kitchen beyond, all quiet, solemn, sad.
In Gwen's room, the one farthest in, lay The Pilot, stately and beautiful under the magic touch of death. And as I stood and looked down upon the quiet face I saw why Gwen shed no tear, but carried a look of serene triumph. She had read the face aright. The lines of weariness that had been growing so painfully clear the last few months were smoothed out, the look of care was gone, and in place of weariness and care, was the proud smile of victory and peace. He had met his foe and was surprised to find his terror gone.
The service was beautiful in its simplicity. The minister, The Pilot's chief, had come out from town to take charge. He was rather a little man, but sturdy and well set. His face was burnt and seared with the suns and frosts he had braved for years. Still in the prime of his manhood, his hair and beard were grizzled and his face deep-lined, for the toils and cares of a pioneer missionary's life are neither few nor light. But out of his kindly blue eye looked the heart of a hero, and as he spoke to us we felt the prophet's touch and caught a gleam of the prophet's fire.
"I have fought the fight," he read. The ring in his voice lifted up all our heads, and, as he pictured to us the life of that battered hero who had written these words, I saw Bill's eyes begin to gleam and his lank figure straighten out its lazy angles. Then he turned the leaves quickly and read again, "Let not your heart be troubled . . . in my father's house are many mansions." His voice took a lower, sweeter tone; he looked over our heads, and for a few moments spoke of the eternal hope. Then he came back to us, and, looking round into the faces turned so eagerly to him, talked to us of The Pilot—how at the first he had sent him to us with fear and trembling—he was so young—but how he had come to trust in him and to rejoice in his work, and to hope much from his life. Now it was all over; but he felt sure his young friend had not given his life in vain. He paused as he looked from one to the other, till his eyes rested on Gwen's face. I was startled, as I believe he was, too, at the smile that parted her lips, so evidently saying: "Yes, but how much better I know than you."
"Yes," he went on, after a pause, answering her smile, "you all know better than I that his work among you will not pass away with his removal, but endure while you live," and the smile on Gwen's face grew brighter. "And now you must not grudge him his reward and his rest . . . and his home." And Bill, nodding his head slowly, said under his breath, "That's so."
Then they sang that hymn of the dawning glory of Immanuel's land,—Lady Charlotte playing the organ and The Duke leading with clear, steady voice verse after verse. When they came to the last verse the minister made a sign and, while they waited, he read the words:
"I've wrestled on towards heaven 'Gainst storm, and wind, and tide."
And so on to that last victorious cry,—
"I hail the glory dawning In Immanuel's Land."
For a moment it looked as if the singing could not go on, for tears were on the minister's face and the women were beginning to sob, but The Duke's clear, quiet voice caught up the song and steadied them all to the end.
After the prayer they all went in and looked at The Pilot's face and passed out, leaving behind only those that knew him best. The Duke and the Hon. Fred stood looking down upon the quiet face.
"The country has lost a good man, Duke," said the Hon. Fred. The Duke bowed silently. Then Lady Charlotte came and gazed a moment.
"Dear Pilot," she whispered, her tears falling fast. "Dear, dear Pilot! Thank God for you! You have done much for me." Then she stooped and kissed him on his cold lips and on his forehead.
Then Gwen seemed to suddenly waken as from a dream. She turned and, looking up in a frightened way, said to Bill hurriedly:
"I want to see him again. Carry me!"
And Bill gathered her up in his arms and took her in. As they looked down upon the dead face with its look of proud peace and touched with the stateliness of death, Gwen's fear passed away. But when The Duke made to cover the face, Gwen drew a sharp breath and, clinging to Bill, said, with a sudden gasp:
"Oh, Bill, I can't bear it alone. I'm afraid alone."
She was thinking of the long, weary days of pain before her that she must face now without The Pilot's touch and smile and voice.
"Me, too," said Bill, thinking of the days before him. He could have said nothing better. Gwen looked in his face a moment, then said:
"We'll help each other," and Bill, swallowing hard, could only nod his head in reply. Once more they looked upon The Pilot, leaning down and lingering over him, and then Gwen said quietly:
"Take me away, Bill," and Bill carried her into the outer room. Turning back I caught a look on The Duke's face so full of grief that I could not help showing my amazement. He noticed and said:
"The best man I ever knew, Connor. He has done something for me too. . . . I'd give the world to die like that."
Then he covered the face.
We sat Gwen's window, Bill, with Gwen in his arms, and I watching. Down the sloping, snow-covered hill wound the procession of sleighs and horsemen, without sound of voice or jingle of bell till, one by one, they passed out of our sight and dipped down into the canyon. But we knew every step of the winding trail and followed them in fancy through that fairy scene of mystic wonderland. We knew how the great elms and the poplars and the birches clinging to the snowy sides interlaced their bare boughs into a network of bewildering complexity, and how the cedars and balsams and spruces stood in the bottom, their dark boughs weighted down with heavy white mantles of snow, and how every stump and fallen log and rotting stick was made a thing of beauty by the snow that had fallen so gently on them in that quiet spot. And we could see the rocks of the canyon sides gleam out black from under overhanging snow-banks, and we could hear the song of the Swan in its many tones, now under an icy sheet, cooing comfortably, and then bursting out into sunlit laughter and leaping into a foaming pool, to glide away smoothly murmuring its delight to the white banks that curved to kiss the dark water as it fled. And where the flowers had been, the violets and the wind-flowers and the clematis and the columbine and all the ferns and flowering shrubs, there lay the snow. Everywhere the snow, pure, white, and myriad-gemmed, but every flake a flower's shroud.
Out where the canyon opened to the sunny, sloping prairie, there they would lay The Pilot to sleep, within touch of the canyon he loved, with all its sleeping things. And there he lies to this time. But Spring has come many times to the canyon since that winter day, and has called to the sleeping flowers, summoning them forth in merry troops, and ever more and more till the canyon ripples with them. And lives are like flowers. In dying they abide not alone, but sow themselves and bloom again with each returning spring, and ever more and more.
For often during the following years, as here and there I came upon one of those that companied with us in those Foothill days, I would catch a glimpse in word and deed and look of him we called, first in jest, but afterwards with true and tender feeling we were not ashamed to own, our Sky Pilot.