Chapter III. The Coming of the Pilot

He was the first missionary ever seen in the country, and it was the Old Timer who named him. The Old Timer's advent to the Foothill country was prehistoric, and his influence was, in consequence, immense. No one ventured to disagree with him, for to disagree with the Old Timer was to write yourself down a tenderfoot, which no one, of course, cared to do. It was a misfortune which only time could repair to be a new-comer, and it was every new-comer's aim to assume with all possible speed the style and customs of the aristocratic Old Timers, and to forget as soon as possible the date of his own arrival. So it was as "The Sky Pilot," familiarly "The Pilot," that the missionary went for many a day in the Swan Creek country.

I had become schoolmaster of Swan Creek. For in the spring a kind Providence sent in the Muirs and the Bremans with housefuls of children, to the ranchers' disgust, for they foresaw ploughed fields and barbed-wire fences cramping their unlimited ranges. A school became necessary. A little log building was erected and I was appointed schoolmaster. It was as schoolmaster that I first came to touch The Pilot, for the letter which the Hudson Bay freighters brought me early one summer evening bore the inscription:

     The Schoolmaster,
               Public School,
                        Swan Creek,

There was altogether a fine air about the letter; the writing was in fine, small hand, the tone was fine, and there was something fine in the signature--"Arthur Wellington Moore." He was glad to know that there was a school and a teacher in Swan Creek, for a school meant children, in whom his soul delighted; and in the teacher he would find a friend, and without a friend he could not live. He took me into his confidence, telling me that though he had volunteered for this far-away mission field he was not much of a preacher and he was not at all sure that he would succeed. But he meant to try, and he was charmed at the prospect of having one sympathizer at least. Would I be kind enough to put up in some conspicuous place the enclosed notice, filling in the blanks as I thought best?

      "Divine service will be held at Swan creek
       in ---- ----- at ---- o'clock.
          All are cordially invited.
                    Arthur Wellington Moore."

On the whole I liked his letter. I liked its modest self- depreciation and I liked its cool assumption of my sympathy and co- operation. But I was perplexed. I remembered that Sunday was the day fixed for the great baseball match, when those from "Home," as they fondly called the land across the sea from which they had come, were to "wipe the earth" with all comers. Besides, "Divine service" was an innovation in Swan Creek and I felt sure that, like all innovations that suggested the approach of the East, it would be by no means welcome.

However, immediately under the notice of the "Grand Baseball Match for 'The Pain Killer' a week from Sunday, at 2:30, Home vs. the World," I pinned on the door of the Stopping Place the announcement:

"Divine service will be held at Swan Creek, in the Stopping Place Parlor, a week from Sunday, immediately upon the conclusion of the baseball match.

"Arthur Wellington Moore."

There was a strange incongruity in the two, and an unconscious challenge as well.

All next day, which was Saturday, and, indeed, during the following week, I stood guard over my notice, enjoying the excitement it produced and the comments it called forth. It was the advance wave of the great ocean of civilization which many of them had been glad to leave behind--some could have wished forever.

To Robert Muir, one of the farmers newly arrived, the notice was a harbinger of good. It stood for progress, markets and a higher price for land; albeit he wondered "hoo he wad be keepit up." But his hard-wrought, quick-spoken little wife at his elbow "hooted" his scruples and, thinking of her growing lads, welcomed with unmixed satisfaction the coming of "the meenister." Her satisfaction was shared by all the mothers and most of the fathers in the settlement; but by the others, and especially by that rollicking, roistering crew, the Company of the Noble Seven, the missionary's coming was viewed with varying degrees of animosity. It meant a limitation of freedom in their wildly reckless living. The "Permit" nights would now, to say the least, be subject to criticism; the Sunday wolf-hunts and horse-races, with their attendant delights, would now be pursued under the eye of the Church, and this would not add to the enjoyment of them. One great charm of the country, which Bruce, himself the son of an Edinburgh minister, and now Secretary of the Noble Seven, described as "letting a fellow do as he blanked pleased," would be gone. None resented more bitterly than he the missionary's intrusion, which he declared to be an attempt "to reimpose upon their freedom the trammels of an antiquated and bigoted conventionality." But the rest of the Company, while not taking so decided a stand, were agreed that the establishment of a church institution was an objectionable and impertinent as well as unnecessary proceeding.

Of course, Hi Kendal and his friend Bronco Bill had no opinion one way or the other. The Church could hardly affect them even remotely. A dozen years' stay in Montana had proved with sufficient clearness to them that a church was a luxury of civilization the West might well do without.

Outside the Company of the Noble Seven there was only one whose opinion had value in Swan Creek, and that was the Old Timer. The Company had sought to bring him in by making him an honorary member, but he refused to be drawn from his home far up among the hills, where he lived with his little girl Gwen and her old half- breed nurse, Ponka. The approach of the church he seemed to resent as a personal injury. It represented to him that civilization from which he had fled fifteen years ago with his wife and baby girl, and when five years later he laid his wife in the lonely grave that could be seen on the shaded knoll just fronting his cabin door, the last link to his past was broken. From all that suggested the great world beyond the run of the Prairie he shrank as one shrinks from a sudden touch upon an old wound.

"I guess I'll have to move back," he said to me gloomily.

"Why?" I said in surprise, thinking of his grazing range, which was ample for his herd.

"This blank Sky Pilot." He never swore except when unusually moved.

"Sky Pilot?" I inquired.

He nodded and silently pointed to the notice.

"Oh, well, he won't hurt you, will he?"

"Can't stand it," he answered savagely, "must get away."

"What about Gwen?" I ventured, for she was the light of his eyes. "Pity to stop her studies." I was giving her weekly lessons at the old man's ranch.

"Dunno. Ain't figgered out yet about that baby." She was still his baby. "Guess she's all she wants for the Foothills, anyway. What's the use?" he added, bitterly, talking to himself after the manner of men who live much alone.

I waited for a moment, then said: "Well, I wouldn't hurry about doing anything," knowing well that the one thing an old-timer hates to do is to make any change in his mode of life. "Maybe he won't stay."

He caught at this eagerly. "That's so! There ain't much to keep him, anyway," and he rode off to his lonely ranch far up in the hills.

I looked after the swaying figure and tried to picture his past with its tragedy; then I found myself wondering how he would end and what would come to his little girl. And I made up my mind that if the missionary were the right sort his coming might not be a bad thing for the Old Timer and perhaps for more than him.