Chapter IV. The Pilot's Measure
 

It was Hi Kendal that announced the arrival of the missionary. I was standing at the door of my school, watching the children ride off home on their ponies, when Hi came loping along on his bronco in the loose-jointed cowboy style.

"Well," he drawled out, bringing his bronco to a dead stop in a single bound, "he's lit."

"Lit? Where? What?" said I, looking round for an eagle or some other flying thing.

"Your blanked Sky Pilot, and he's a beauty, a pretty kid--looks too tender for this climate. Better not let him out on the range." Hi was quite disgusted, evidently.

"What's the matter with him, Hi?"

"Why, he ain't no parson! I don't go much on parsons, but when I calls for one I don't want no bantam chicken. No, sirree, horse! I don't want no blankety-blank, pink-and-white complected nursery kid foolin' round my graveyard. If you're goin' to bring along a parson, why bring him with his eye-teeth cut and his tail feathers on."

That Hi was deeply disappointed was quite clear from the selection of the profanity with which he adorned this lengthy address. It was never the extent of his profanity, but the choice, that indicated Hi's interest in any subject.

Altogether, the outlook for the missionary was not encouraging. With the single exception of the Muirs, who really counted for little, nobody wanted him. To most of the reckless young bloods of the Company of the Noble Seven his presence was an offence; to others simply a nuisance, while the Old Timer regarded his advent with something like dismay; and now Hi's impression of his personal appearance was not cheering.

My first sight of him did not reassure me. He was very slight, very young, very innocent, with a face that might do for an angel, except for the touch of humor in it, but which seemed strangely out of place among the rough, hard faces that were to be seen in the Swan Creek Country. It was not a weak face, however. The forehead was high and square, the mouth firm, and the eyes were luminous, of some dark color--violet, if there is such a color in eyes--dreamy or sparkling, according to his mood; eyes for which a woman might find use, but which, in a missionary's head, appeared to me one of those extraordinary wastes of which Nature is sometimes guilty.

He was gazing far away into space infinitely beyond the Foothills and the blue line of the mountains behind them. He turned to me as I drew near, with eyes alight and face glowing.

"It is glorious," he almost panted. "You see this everyday!" Then, recalling himself, he came eagerly toward me, stretching out his hand. "You are the schoolmaster, I know. Do you know, it's a great thing? I wanted to be one, but I never could get the boys on. They always got me telling them tales. I was awfully disappointed. I am trying the next best thing. You see, I won't have to keep order, but I don't think I can preach very well. I am going to visit your school. Have you many scholars? Do you know, I think it's splendid? I wish I could do it."

I had intended to be somewhat stiff with him, but his evident admiration of me made me quite forget this laudable intention, and, as he talked on without waiting for an answer, his enthusiasm, his deference to my opinion, his charm of manner, his beautiful face, his luminous eyes, made him perfectly irresistible; and before I was aware I was listening to his plans for working his mission with eager interest. So eager was my interest, indeed, that before I was aware I found myself asking him to tea with me in my shack. But he declined, saying:

"I'd like to, awfully; but do you know, I think Latour expects me."

This consideration of Latour's feelings almost upset me.

"You come with me," he added, and I went.

Latour welcomed us with his grim old face wreathed in unusual smiles. The pilot had been talking to him, too.

"I've got it, Latour!" he cried out as he entered; "here you are," and he broke into the beautiful French-Canadian chanson, "A la Claire Fontaine," to the old half-breed's almost tearful delight.

"Do you know," he went on, "I heard that first down the Mattawa," and away he went into a story of an experience with French-Canadian raftsmen, mixing up his French and English in so charming a manner that Latour; who in his younger days long ago had been a shantyman himself, hardly knew whether he was standing on his head or on his heels.

After tea I proposed a ride out to see the sunset from the nearest rising ground. Latour, with unexampled generosity, offered his own cayuse, "Louis."

"I can't ride well," protested The Pilot.

"Ah! dat's good ponee, Louis," urged Latour. "He's quiet lak wan leetle mouse; he's ride lak--what you call?--wan horse-on-de-rock." Under which persuasion the pony was accepted.

That evening I saw the Swan Creek country with new eyes--through the luminous eyes of The Pilot. We rode up the trail by the side of the Swan till we came to the coulee mouth, dark and full of mystery.

"Come on," I said, "we must get to the top for the sunset."

He looked lingeringly into the deep shadows and asked: "Anything live down there?"

"Coyotes and wolves and ghosts."

"Ghosts?" he asked, delightedly. "Do you know, I was sure there were, and I'm quite sure I shall see them."

Then we took the Porcupine trail and climbed for about two miles the gentle slope to the top of the first rising ground. There we stayed and watched the sun take his nightly plunge into the sea of mountains, now dimly visible. Behind us stretched the prairie, sweeping out level to the sky and cut by the winding coulee of the Swan. Great long shadows from the hills were lying upon its yellow face, and far at the distant edge the gray haze was deepening into purple. Before us lay the hills, softly curving like the shoulders of great sleeping monsters, their tops still bright, but the separating valleys full of shadow. And there, far beyond them, up against the sky, was the line of the mountains--blue, purple, and gold, according as the light fell upon them. The sun had taken his plunge, but he had left behind him his robes of saffron and gold. We stood long without a word or movement, filling our hearts with the silence and the beauty, till the gold in the west began to grow dim. High above all the night was stretching her star-pierced, blue canopy, and drawing slowly up from the east over the prairie and over the sleeping hills the soft folds of a purple haze. The great silence of the dying day had fallen upon the world and held us fast.

"Listen," he said, in a low tone, pointing to the hills. "Can't you hear them breathe?" And, looking at their curving shoulders, I fancied I could see them slowly heaving as if in heavy sleep, and I was quite sure I could hear them breathe. I was under the spell of his voice and his eyes, and nature was all living to me then.

We rode back to the Stopping Place in silence, except for a word of mine now and then which he heeded not; and, with hardly a good night, he left me at the door. I turned away feeling as if I had been in a strange country and among strange people.

How would he do with the Swan Creek folk? Could he make them see the hills breathe? Would they feel as I felt under his voice and eyes? What a curious mixture he was! I was doubtful about his first Sunday, and was surprised to find all my indifference as to his success or failure gone. It was a pity about the baseball match. I would speak to some of the men about it to-morrow.

Hi might be disappointed in his appearance, but, as I turned into my shack and thought over my last two hours with The Pilot and how he had "got" old Latour and myself, I began to think that Hi might be mistaken in his measure of The Pilot.