Chapter XIV. Bill's Bluff
 

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.