The Sky Pilot by Ralph Connor
Chapter XXIII. 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.