Chapter XXI. 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.