The Sky Pilot by Ralph Connor
Chapter V. First Blood
One is never so enthusiastic in the early morning, when the emotions are calmest and the nerves at their steadiest. But I was determined to try to have the baseball match postponed. There could be no difficulty. One day was as much of a holiday as another to these easy-going fellows. But The Duke, when I suggested a change in the day, simply raised his eyebrows an eighth of an inch and said:
"Can't see why the day should be changed." Bruce stormed and swore all sorts of destruction upon himself if he was going to change his style of life for any man. The others followed The Duke's lead.
That Sunday was a day of incongruities. The Old and the New, the East and the West, the reverential Past and iconoclastic Present were jumbling themselves together in bewildering confusion. The baseball match was played with much vigor and profanity. The expression on The Pilot's face, as he stood watching for a while, was a curious mixture of interest, surprise, doubt and pain. He was readjusting himself. He was so made as to be extremely sensitive to his surroundings. He took on color quickly. The utter indifference to the audacious disregard of all he had hitherto considered sacred and essential was disconcerting. They were all so dead sure. How did he know they were wrong? It was his first near view of practical, living skepticism. Skepticism in a book did not disturb him; he could put down words against it. But here it was alive, cheerful, attractive, indeed fascinating; for these men in their western garb and with their western swing had captured his imagination. He was in a fierce struggle, and in a few minutes I saw him disappear into the coulee.
Meantime the match went uproariously on to a finish, with the result that the champions of "Home" had "to stand The Painkiller," their defeat being due chiefly to the work of Hi and Bronco Bill as pitcher and catcher.
The celebration was in full swing; or as Hi put it, "the boys were takin' their pizen good an' calm," when in walked The Pilot. His face was still troubled and his lips were drawn and blue, as if he were in pain. A silence fell on the men as he walked in through the crowd and up to the bar. He stood a moment hesitating, looking round upon the faces flushed and hot that were now turned toward him in curious defiance. He noticed the look, and it pulled him together. He faced about toward old Latour and asked in a high, clear voice:
"Is this the room you said we might have?"
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and said:
"There is not any more."
The lad paused for an instant, but only for an instant. Then, lifting a pile of hymn books he had near him on the counter, he said in a grave, sweet voice, and with the quiver of a smile about his lips:
"Gentlemen, Mr. Latour has allowed me this room for a religious service. It will give me great pleasure if you will all join," and immediately he handed a book to Bronco Bill, who, surprised, took it as if he did not know what to do with it. The others followed Bronco's lead till he came to Bruce, who refused, saying roughly:
"No! I don't want it; I've no use for it."
The missionary flushed and drew back as if he had been struck, but immediately, as if unconsciously, The Duke, who was standing near, stretched out his hand and said, with a courteous bow, "I thank you; I should be glad of one."
"Thank you," replied The Pilot, simply, as he handed him a book. The men seated themselves upon the bench that ran round the room, or leaned up against the counter, and most of them took off their hats. Just then in came Muir, and behind him his little wife.
In an instant The Duke was on his feet, and every hat came off.
The missionary stood up at the bar, and announced the hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." The silence that followed was broken by the sound of a horse galloping. A buckskin bronco shot past the window, and in a few moments there appeared at the door the Old Timer. He was about to stride in when the unusual sight of a row of men sitting solemnly with hymn books in their hands held him fast at the door. He gazed in an amazed, helpless way upon the men, then at the missionary, then back at the men, and stood speechless. Suddenly there was a high, shrill, boyish laugh, and the men turned to see the missionary in a fit of laughter. It certainly was a shock to any lingering ideas of religious propriety they might have about them; but the contrast between his frank, laughing face and the amazed and disgusted face of the shaggy old man in the doorway was too much for them, and one by one they gave way to roars of laughter. The Old Timer, however, kept his face unmoved, strode up to the bar and nodded to old Latour, who served him his drink, which he took at a gulp.
"Here, old man!" called out Bill, "get into the game; here's your deck," offering him his book. But the missionary was before him, and, with very beautiful grace, he handed the Old Timer a book and pointed him to a seat.
I shall never forget that service. As a religious affair it was a dead failure, but somehow I think The Pilot, as Hi approvingly said, "got in his funny work," and it was not wholly a defeat. The first hymn was sung chiefly by the missionary and Mrs. Muir, whose voice was very high, with one or two of the men softly whistling an accompaniment. The second hymn was better, and then came the Lesson, the story of the feeding of the five thousand. As the missionary finished the story, Bill, who had been listening with great interest, said:
"I say, pard, I think I'll call you just now."
"I beg your pardon!" said the startled missionary.
"You're givin' us quite a song and dance now, ain't you?"
"I don't understand," was the puzzled reply.
"How many men was there in the crowd?" asked Bill, with a judicial air.
"And how much grub?"
"Five loaves and two fishes," answered Bruce for the missionary.
"Well," drawled Bill, with the air of a man who has reached a conclusion, "that's a little too unusual for me. Why," looking pityingly at the missionary, "it ain't natarel."
"Right you are, my boy," said Bruce, with a laugh. "It's deucedly unnatural."
"Not for Him," said the missionary, quietly. Then Bruce joyfully took him up and led him on into a discussion of evidences, and from evidences into metaphysics, the origin of evil and the freedom of the will, till the missionary, as Bill said, "was rattled worse nor a rooster in the dark." Poor little Mrs. Muir was much scandalized and looked anxiously at her husband, wishing him to take her out. But help came from an unexpected quarter, and Hi suddenly called out:
"Here you, Bill, shut your blanked jaw, and you, Bruce, give the man a chance to work off his music."
"That's so! Fair play! Go on!" were the cries that came in response to Hi's appeal.
The missionary, who was all trembling and much troubled, gave Hi a grateful look, and said:
"I'm afraid there are a great many things I don't understand, and I am not good at argument." There were shouts of "Go on! fire ahead, play the game!" but he said, "I think we will close the service with a hymn." His frankness and modesty, and his respectful, courteous manner gained the sympathy of the men, so that all joined heartily in singing, "Sun of My Soul." In the prayer that followed his voice grew steady and his nerve came back to him. The words were very simple, and the petitions were mostly for light and for strength. With a few words of remembrance of "those in our homes far away who think of us and pray for us and never forget," this strange service was brought to a close.
After the missionary had stepped out, the whole affair was discussed with great warmth. Hi Kendal thought "The Pilot didn't have no fair show," maintaining that when he was "ropin' a steer he didn't want no blanked tenderfoot to be shovin' in his rope like Bill there." But Bill steadily maintained his position that "the story of that there picnic was a little too unusual" for him. Bruce was trying meanwhile to beguile The Duke into a discussion of the physics and metaphysics of the case. But The Duke refused with quiet contempt to be drawn into a region where he felt himself a stranger. He preferred poker himself, if Bruce cared to take a hand; and so the evening went on, with the theological discussion by Hi and Bill in a judicial, friendly spirit in one corner, while the others for the most part played poker.
When the missionary returned late there were only a few left in the room, among them The Duke and Bruce, who was drinking steadily and losing money. The missionary's presence seemed to irritate him, and he played even more recklessly than usual, swearing deeply at every loss. At the door the missionary stood looking up into the night sky and humming softly "Sun of My Soul," and after a few minutes The Duke joined in humming a bass to the air till Bruce could contain himself no longer.
"I say," he called out, "this isn't any blanked prayer-meeting, is it?"
The Duke ceased humming, and, looking at Bruce, said quietly: "Well, what is it? What's the trouble?"
"Trouble!" shouted Bruce. "I don't see what hymn-singing has to do with a poker game."
"Oh, I see! I beg pardon! Was I singing?" said The Duke. Then after a pause he added, "You're quite right. I say, Bruce, let's quit. Something has got on to your nerves." And coolly sweeping his pile into his pocket, he gave up the game. With an oath Bruce left the table, took another drink, and went unsteadily out to his horse, and soon we heard him ride away into the darkness, singing snatches of the hymn and swearing the most awful oaths.
The missionary's face was white with horror. It was all new and horrible to him.
"Will he get safely home?" he asked of The Duke.
"Don't you worry, youngster," said The Duke, in his loftiest manner, "he'll get along."
The luminous, dreamy eyes grew hard and bright as they looked The Duke in the face.
"Yes, I shall worry; but you ought to worry more."
"Ah!" said The Duke, raising his brows and smiling gently upon the bright, stern young face lifted up to his. "I didn't notice that I had asked your opinion."
"If anything should happen to him," replied the missionary, quickly, "I should consider you largely responsible."
"That would be kind," said The Duke, still smiling with his lips. But after a moment's steady look into the missionary's eyes he nodded his head twice or thrice, and, without further word, turned away.
The missionary turned eagerly to me:
"They beat me this afternoon," he cried, "but thank God, I know now they are wrong and I am right! I don't understand! I can't see my way through! But I am right! It's true! I feel it's true! Men can't live without Him, and be men!"
And long after I went to my shack that night I saw before me the eager face with the luminous eyes and heard the triumphant cry: "I feel it's true! Men can't live without Him, and be men!" and I knew that though his first Sunday ended in defeat there was victory yet awaiting him.