Chapter XII. Gwen's Canyon
 

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.