The Prospector by Ralph Connor
XVI. "Stay at Your Post, Lad"
Relieved from his station at the Fort, Shock was able to devote himself entirely to the western part of his field, which embraced the Loon Lake district and extended twenty-five miles up to the Pass, and he threw himself with redoubled energy into his work of exploration and organisation. Long ago his little cayuse had been found quite unequal to the task of keeping pace with the tremendous energy of his driver, and so for the longer journeys Shock had come to depend mainly upon Bob, the great rangey sorrel sent him by the Hamilton boys, the only condition attached to the gift being that he should allow Bob to visit the ranch at least once a month. And so it came that Shock and his sorrel broncho became widely known over the ranges of all that country. Many a little shack in far away valleys, where a woman with her children lived in isolated seclusion from all the world, he discovered and brought into touch with the world about, and by means of books and magazines and illustrated papers brought to hearts sick with longing some of the colour and brightness from the great world beyond, so often fondly longed for. Many a cowboy, wild and reckless, with every link of kin-ship broken, an unrelated unit of humanity keeping lonely watch over his bunch of cattle, found in Shock a friend, and established through him anew a bond with human society. The hour spent with Shock in riding around the cattle often brought to this bit of human driftwood a new respect for himself, a new sense of responsibility for life, and a new estimate of the worth of his manhood. Away up in the Pass, too, where the miners lived and wrought under conditions wretched, debasing, and fraught with danger, and where in the forest-camps the lumbermen lived lives more wholesome, but more lonely, Shock found scope for the full energy of his passion to help and serve.
"A hospital is what they need up here, doctor!" he exclaimed one day after they had made a tour through the shacks and bunks where men sick and injured lay in their uncared for misery. "A hospital is what they want, and some kind of a homelike place where they can meet together. And by God's help we'll get this, too, when our hands are somewhat free. We have all we can do for the next few weeks." And so they had.
Shock had early recognised that the evils which were so rampant, and that exercised such a baneful influence in the community, were due not so much to any inherent love of vice as to the conditions under which the men were forced to live. Life was a lonely thing on the ranges, without colour, without variety, and men plunged into debauchery from sheer desperate reaction from monotony. Shock believed that, if there could be established a social centre offering intellectual interest and physical recreation, much could be done to banish the vices that were fast becoming imbedded in the very life and character of the people. And so he planned the erection of a building that would serve for church, manse, club- house, schoolroom, and library, and would thus become a spot around which the life of the community might gather in a clean and wholesome atmosphere. He appealed to the Church Manse Building Fund for a grant, he drew his plans for his building, and throughout the summer quietly set about gathering his materials. One and another of his friends he would persuade to haul a load of logs from the hills, and with good-natured persistence he would get a day's work now and again from the young fellows who frequently had more time on their hands than they knew how to reasonably make use of, with the result that before they were well aware of what was being done a log building stood ready for the roofing and plaster. His success stimulated his friends to more organised and continued effort. They began to vie with each other in making contributions of work and material for the new building. Macnamara furnished lime, Martin drew sand, Sinclair and The Kid, who had the best horses and wagons, drew lumber from the mill at the Fort; and by the time summer was gone the building, roofed, chinked, and plastered, only required a few finishing touches to be ready for the opening. Indeed, it was a most creditable structure. It was a large, roomy, two-story building, the downstairs of which was given up to a room to be devoted to public uses. The upstairs Shock planned to contain four bed-rooms.
"What do you want of four bed-rooms, Mr. Prospector?" said Ike, as they were laying out the space. "You can't sleep in more'n three of 'em at a time."
"No, but you can sleep in one, Ike, and some of the boys in another, and I want one myself."
"Oh!" said Ike, much pleased. "Going to run a kind of stoppin' place, are you?"
"Yes; I hope my friends will stop with me often."
"Guess you won't have much trouble with that side of it," said Ike. "And this here room," he continued, "will do first rate for a kind of lumber-room, provisions, and harness, and such like, I guess?"
"No," said Shock. "This room will be the finest room in the house. See: it will look away out toward the south and west, over the lake, and up to the mountains. The inside of the room won't be hard to beat, but the outside cannot be equalled in all the world, and I tell you what, Ike, it cannot be too good, for this room is for my mother." There was a reverent, tender tone in Shock's voice that touched Ike.
"Is she really goin' to come out here?" he asked.
"I hope so," said Shock. "Next spring."
"I say," said Ike, "won't she find it lonely?"
"I don't think so," said Shock, with a curious smile. "You know, my mother is rather peculiar. For twenty-five years, without missing a single night, she came into my room to kiss me before I went to sleep, and she's just that foolish that if I'm anywhere around I don't think she'll be lonely." And then Shock proceeded to give Ike a picture of his mother, and all her devotion to him through the long years of his life. The rough but tender-hearted cowboy was more touched than he cared to show.
"Say," he said, when Shock had finished, "how did you ever come to leave her? I couldn't 'a' done it, nohow."
"She sent me," said Shock simply. "There's One she loves better than me." And Ike understood without more explanation.
For the furnishing of the house, and for the equipment of the library and club-rooms, Shock had appealed to his friends in the East through Brown, to whom he gave a full description of the building and the purposes for which it had been erected. The response was so hearty and so generous that, when the loads of house-furnishings, books, magazines, and papers arrived, Shock's heart was full to overflowing with gratitude, and, when a little later he received notice that a cabinet organ had arrived at the railroad depot, he felt that the difficulties and trials of a missionary's life were few and small in comparison with the triumphs and rewards.
At length everything was in place and the building ready for the opening. The preparations for this great event were in the hands of a committee, of which The Kid was chairman; the decorations were left to Ike and Perault; the programme was left to The Kid, assisted by Marion, who had been persuaded not only to sing, herself, but had agreed to train the school children in some action songs. There was to be a grand supper, of course,--nothing Western would be complete without that feature,--and in addition to the ordinary speeches and musical numbers there was to be a nigger-minstrel show with clog- dancing furnished by the miners and lumbermen from the Pass, at Shock's urgent invitation. The whole affair was to be wound up by a grand promenade headed by young Malcolm Forbes, son of a Highland chief, a shy young fellow whom Shock had dug up from a remote valley, and who was to appear in full Highland costume with his pipes. Small wonder that the whole community, from the Fort to the Pass, was tingling with delighted anticipation. Such an event was not only important of itself, but it was hailed as the inauguration of a new era in the country, for with church, school, library, and club they would be abreast of the most advanced Eastern civilisation.
Not only were the people of the Loon Lake district stirred with interest in the opening of their new building, but to a far greater extent than they knew their confidence and even their affection had gathered about the man to whose energy the whole enterprise was due. During these months they had come to rely upon his judgment as a man of affairs, to trust him for his true human heart, and to regard him with reverence as one touched with a spirit unlike that of the world with which they were familiar--a spirit of generous sympathy with them in all their multitudinous trials and difficulties, a spirit that made him think nothing of himself and much of them. He represented to them religion in a manner at once winning and impressive, as few of them had ever seen it represented before.
At length the great day came, and with it the gathering of the people from all parts far and near. A few farmers who lived toward the Fort came with their wives and children in horse-wagons and ox- wagons; the ranchers with their families drove for the most part in Democrats and buckboards; but many of the ranchers and their wives and all the cowboys came on horseback. There had never been such a gathering at Loon Lake within the memory of the oldest timer. The preparations for supper were elaborate and impressive. It was important that this part of the evening's proceedings should go off well. As Shock, passing up and down, witnessed the abounding hilarity of those who thronged the supper-tables his mind was relieved of all anxiety as to the success of the entertainment to follow. With great difficulty Sinclair, who was a shy man, was persuaded to preside as chairman. It was only the promise of Shock to support him on the one side and of Father Mike, who was almost as much interested in the success of the entertainment as Shock himself, on the other, that induced Sinclair finally to accept this responsible and honourable position. It was indeed an hour of triumph to Shock and his fellow-workers, and as the entertainment progressed they gathered satisfaction to the full from the manifestations of delight on the part of the audience that packed the building to the doors.
After the entertainment had well begun a stranger appeared at the door asking for the minister.
"Well," said Ike, who was performing the responsible duty of door- keeper, "you can't see him, not now. What's required?"
"I guess it's pretty important," the stranger said.
"It's a telegram. In fact, it's bad news, so Mr. McIntyre of Big River said."
"Bad news!" exclaimed Ike. "Mighty bad time to bring bad news. Why couldn't you wait?"
"Some things can't wait," said the man briefly. "Guess you'd better read it, it's open."
"Not me," said Ike, shrinking from this liberty. "Send for The Kid."
In a few moments The Kid appeared and, taking the telegram from Ike, read it.
"The Lord help us!" he exclaimed as he read the wire. He took Ike to one side away from the crowd and read him the words: "'Your mother seriously ill. Doctors hold out no hope of recovery. Signed, BROWN.'"
"His mother! Say, boss, what'll we do? He thinks a mighty lot of his mother. I've heerd him talk. This will purty nigh kill him, I guess."
They stood for some moments looking blankly at each other, unwilling to deliver the blow which they knew would strike deep into the heart of the man they had come to love.
"He must be told," said The Kid at length. "Let's see--he'll want to get to the end of the line, anyway, and that's over a hundred miles from here. I say, Ike, you'd better tell him, I guess."
"Well," said Ike slowly, "that there's a purty particular bit of diplomatics, and I aint used to it. I say," with a sudden inspiration, "you tell him."
"Couldn't do it, Ike. How would it do to get Father Mike or Sinclair?"
"Yes," said Ike meditatively, "they'd do all right if we weren't here, but I guess we belong to him 'most more than they do."
"That's so, Ike," said The Kid quickly. "That's so; it's one of us."
"Yes, it's one of us," said Ike, "and if I could do it well, boss, you wouldn't see no buck."
"All right, Ike," said The Kid, drawing a long breath. "I'll do it."
"I'll remember it, boss," said Ike. "Guess there aint much time to lose. How is he agoin' to git there?"
"Take the Swallow, Ike," said The Kid. "She's good for a hundred miles."
"Mr. McIntyre's team will be ready to go from his place," said the stranger, who had come near.
"Good!" said The Kid. "Where are you going, Ike?"
"To git the horses. He'll want to git right off. I guess I'll put him on Slipper, and I'll take the Swallow. Slipper rides purty easy, and he's a purty big man."
"All right, Ike," said The Kid. "Remember every minute is precious. Here, Mac," he continued, turning to Macnamara, who stood looking in at the door, craning his neck to see and hear what was going on, "slip around to the side door and tell Mr. Macgregor that I want him right away."
In a few minutes Shock came running out in high spirits, elated with the success of the evening. "Hello, old boy!" he cried to The Kid. "It's great, isn't it? You're a great concert conductor! What do you want me for?"
The Kid took him by the arm and led him away in silence toward the Old Prospector's shack, which stood near by.
"What's the matter, Stanton; anything gone wrong?" Still The Kid made no reply; but, walking to the door of the shack, opened it, and went in and lit the lamp. "Sit down," he said, pushing Shock into a chair. "I have something to tell you. There's--there's bad news, I'm afraid. I'll wait outside." He put the telegram down, went hastily out, and closed the door, leaving Shock to face the blow where no eye could see.
It seemed an hour to The Kid before Ike came up with the Swallow and Slipper saddled and ready for the journey.
"Where is he?" said Ike, in a whisper.
"In there," replied The Kid, with a groan. "God help him!"
"I guess He will. He ought to," said Ike gravely, "Got grub, Ike, and blankets?"
Ike nodded, pointing to the sack strapped to the saddle.
"He ought to start," said The Kid nervously, "That wire's two days old now. It will take till to-morrow night to reach town even if everything goes right, and every moment counts. Better go in," he continued, "and tell him the horses are ready."
Ike nodded and went toward the closed door, opened it softly, and went in. He found Shock sitting at the table gazing vacantly at the telegram in his hand as if trying to take in its meaning. He looked up at Ike as he entered and, handing him the telegram, said:
"It's my mother, Ike. Do you remember my mother?"
"Yes, I know," replied Ike, approaching him timidly and laying a hand awkwardly on his shoulder. "I don't want to presume," he continued, "but I was wonderin' if there was anyone who could help you to stand it?"
"There is, there is One, there is."
"That's all right, then," said Ike, as if an important matter had been settled. "The horses are ready."
"The horses?" said Shock, with a puzzled air.
"Yes; thought you'd want to ride to town to get to send a wire or somethin'."
"Of course I do; thank you. I'll go to her at once. What a fool I am!" He rose hastily as he spoke, changed his coat, and getting his hat and riding gloves came out to where The Kid stood with the horses.
"Why, it's the Swallow, and Slipper!" he said, "Boys, this is good of you."
The Kid stood without a word, looking at Shock's white, dazed face. He could not trust his voice to speak.
"You'd best get onto Slipper," said Ike. "Rides easy and is mighty sure. The Swallow's all right, of course," he continued apologetically to The Kid, "but a leetle light "
"But I don't want both," said Shock.
"Oh! I guess I'll go along," declared Ike. "I know the trails and short-cuts a little better. Can save time, perhaps. That is," he added, "if you don't mind my goin' along."
"That's awfully good of you, Ike," said Shock. "I shall be glad to have you."
"Good-bye, Kiddie," said Shock affectionately, holding out his hand to The Kid. "I cannot say, much just now, but I appreciate this kindness, my, boy."
"Don't, don't!" said The Kid, in a husky whisper. "I wish to Heaven I could help you. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," said Shock, taking up the reins. "Oh! I say, Kid, don't tell anyone to-night. Keep the thing going; it would be a pity to spoil their fun, you know. You can do this for me, can't you?"
"I can try," said The Kid, setting his teeth together.
He stood looking after them as they went up the trail in the moonlight "Oh! this cursed country!" he groaned. "It's so far from any place. He'll never see her again, I'm sure. Well, I must keep this thing going as I promised. But some of the number I'll cut out, you can bet."
Straight on through the moonlight rode the two men, the one trying to make real the words that marched with ceaseless tramp across his brain: "Doctors hold out no hope of recovery." They seemed like words of fire written across the prairie. The other, riding a little behind, except where the trail grew difficult or indistinct, silent but alert for opportunity to offer aid or show sympathy, governing carefully the pace so that the best possible speed could be got out of the superb animals that with their swinging lope covered the long slopes up and down. The memory of that ride to Shock in after years was like that of a ghastly nightmare, a strange intermingling of moonlight and shadow; the murmur of the night wind about his ears; the steady beat of the hoofs upon the beaten trail; the pause at midnight by the upper ford of the Black Dog to feed and rest their horses; and then the steady onward push through the night till the grey and gold of the eastern sky told that the morning had come. He could never forget how the first beams of the rising sun smote his eyes like the cut of a whip till he was almost forced to cry out in his pain. He remembered how it seemed to him as if he were in the grip of some mysterious force impelling him onward in that unending, relentless lope. Another pause at sunrise to give the horses breath, and then on again they rode through that terrible red light of the rising sun, till at length in the still early forenoon the manse of Big River was reached. Their horses were jaded and leg-weary, for in the thirteen hours during which they had kept up their long, swinging gait they had covered more than a hundred miles.
The McIntyres were expecting them.
"We want speak about his mother, dear," said the little woman of the manse, with a warm feeling in her heart for the missionary who had spent a night with them some seven months ago, and had told them so simply and fully of his life, a story of which the heart and soul had been his mother. "It hurts to speak of these things for a while," she added.
"Yes, my darling, I know," said her husband, his eyes lingering tenderly upon the face looking so sweet, but so wan and pale above the black dress and crepe collar. "We know, we know, darling," he repeated, taking her in his arms. They were both thinking of the little mound looking so small upon the wide prairie, small but big enough to hold all their heart's treasure. For five months the manse had been overrunning with heaven's own light; and with joy that rippled and flowed from baby laughter, that lurked in dimpled fingers and dimpled toes and dimpled cheeks, every dimple a well of light and joy--and then the little mound with its white railing, and only the echoes of the laughter and the memory of the dimpled fingers, toes, and cheeks,--and the empty manse! It was this memory that made their welcome of Shock so full of tender understanding. There is no speech like heart-speech, and during the hour in the Big River manse to Shock's heart there came--how he could not have told- -the inarticulate message of sympathy that healed and comforted, so that he drove away rested and refreshed as with sleep. As they were hitching up the team Ike found opportunity to whisper to Shock: "I say, p'rhaps you'd rather he'd go with you; he'd help you more, p'rhaps?"
"No, no, Ike; don't leave me; I want you," Shock had replied.
"All right, boss; that suits me," was Ike's answer, glad that his offer had not been accepted.
"Good-bye," said Mr. McIntyre, waving his hand. "Do not spare them, Ike," he continued. "They can make Spruce Creek in two hours and a half easily."
"I'll take care o' them," said Ike, swinging the fiery, half-broken bronchos onto the trail. "They'd ought to do a little better than that, I judge." And they did; for, when the buckboard drew up at the Spruce Creek Stopping Place Ike remarked to Bill Lee, who stood in his usual position leaning against the door: "Two hours from Big River, and not much the worse, I guess."
Bill's welcome of Shock was almost effusive in its heartiness, but Ike cut him short.
"I say, Bill," he called out, walking to the stable; "got any oats in here?"
"Oh, a few. I keep some for thoroughbreds, you know." And he walked after Ike into the stable.
Ike began talking rapidly and in a low tone. As Bill listened he became unusually excited. "Eh! What! No. Say, that's bad, too blank bad! His mother, eh? My team? Certainly. There they are, fit for a good dozen an hour. Put 'em right in."
In ten minutes Bill's team, the pride of his heart, were hitched to the buckboard.
"All right, Bill," said Ike, taking the reins.
"All right, Ike," replied Bill. "Their skin don't say much, but they can talk with their feet a few. Let 'em go. They won't run away."
The performance of Bill's bony, shaggy team more than justified their owner's promise. They did "talk with their feet," and to such good purpose that in less than two hours Shock stood at the door of his Convener's house, his mind bewildered, his senses numbed from the terrible strain through which he had passed.
"Come in, my dear fellow," said the Convener, who had evidently been expecting him, "come right in."
But Shock stood at the door. "Is there any word?" he enquired, with a voice void of all emotion.
"When does the train go?"
"The train? Oh, at two in the morning."
"How long does it take?"
"Five days!" echoed Shock, in a voice of despair.
"You might wire a message in the meantime," said the Convener kindly. "We will go down to the telegraph office after you have had a rest and a cup of tea."
"No, no," said Shock, turning eagerly from the door. "I am all right; cannot we go now?"
At the telegraph office a number of men stood laughing and talking. Shock drew a blank sheet toward him and set himself to compose his wire. Again and again he made the attempt, but at length he put down the pen and looked around piteously at his friend. "I cannot say it!" he exclaimed in a hurried whisper.
"Come outside a minute," said the Convener, taking his arm. "Now tell me what you want to say and perhaps I can help you."
"Oh!" cried Shock, wreathing his great fingers an his agony. "I want to say goodbye--No, no, not that! I want to tell her--give her my love and say I want to see her. She will be wanting me." His breath began to come in great heaving sobs.
"Let me try," said his friend. "You stay out here."
After some moments the Convener returned and handed Shock a paper on which he had written: "God keep you, mother dear. My heart's love to you. Shall I come?"
"Will that do?" he asked.
"Yes, yes; thank you. That is good."
"Now," said the Convener, when they had reached the house, "you must rest."
"I am not tired," said Shock, as if in surprise.
"My dear fellow, you are half dead."
"No, I am quite right, and besides, there's Ike. I ought to look after Ike."
"Don't you worry about Ike," said the Convener. "He's able to look after himself; besides I'll look him up when I get you to sleep. Come now," and he led him into the tiny bedroom. "You get into bed; I'll bring you a cup of tea and you can sleep. No one will disturb you, and, I'll wake you at the right time, never fear."
"I don't think I am sleepy," said Shock; but when in a few minutes his friend came back with his cup of tea he found Shock in a sleep so profound that he had not the heart to wake him. "Poor chap, poor chap!" said the Convener, looking down upon the strong, rugged face, now so haggard. "This is a hard country!"
For hours Shock lay dead in sleep. Before nightfall the Convener went to look up Ike, and on his return found his guest still asleep. "Let him sleep, it will do him good," he said to his kind-hearted wife, who would have wakened Shock to have supper.
"We'll let him sleep till an answer comes to his wire." Late at night he went down to the telegraph office.
"Yes," replied the clerk in answer to his enquiry, "there's a wire for Mr. Macgregor just come in. Bad news, too, I guess."
The Convener took the message and read: "Your mother passed away in perfect peace this evening. Your message brought her great joy. She wished me to send this reply: 'The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. Stay at your post, lad, till He calls:' HELEN."
"'Stay at your post till He calls,'" read the Convener again. "A great soul that. That word will do him good."
He was right. He found Shock waiting for him, calm, expectant, and ready to bear whatever life might bring, nor did his face change as he read the wire over and over again. He only said: "God is very good to us. She went away in peace, and she got my wire and I hers."
"Yes," said the Convener, "God is always good. We sometimes cannot see it, but," he added, "it was a great matter that your sister could have been there with her."
"My sister?" said Shock. "Oh!" a sudden flush reddening his pale cheek. "She's not my sister--she's my--she's our friend, yes, a dear friend. It would be a great joy to my mother to have her."
There was no sign of grief in his face, but a great peace seemed to have settled upon him. Long into the night he talked over the affairs of his mission field, giving in response to the keen questions of his Convener a full account of the work he had been carrying on, opening up the plans he had made for future work. In particular was he anxious to enlist the Convener's sympathy in his scheme for a reading-room and hospital at the Pass. The Convener shook his head at the plan. "I agree with you entirely," he said, "but the Committee, I fear, will not give you a grant for a hospital. If it were a church now--"
"Well," argued Shock, "it will serve for a church."
"You may count on me to do my best for you," replied the Convener, "but I am not sanguine. The Committee are extremely cautious and conservative."
But when the Convener came to ask about the difficulties and trials of his life his missionary became silent. There were no trials and difficulties to speak of, no more at least than the rest of the people had to bear. They were all good to him.
"That's all right," said the Convener, "but there are difficulties, none the less. It is a hard country, and sometimes it lays burdens upon us almost greater than we can bear. There are the poor McIntyres, now," he continued. "How did you find them?"
"Very well," replied Shock. "But, indeed, I didn't notice much."
And then the Convener told him of the story of their great grief.
"It is a common enough story in this country. The little baby was five months old, singularly bright and attractive. McIntyre himself was quite foolish about it; and, indeed, the whole congregation were quite worked up over it. Took suddenly ill, some mysterious trouble; no doctor within forty miles; before he arrived the baby was gone. They were dreadfully cut up about it."
"I--I never noticed," said Shock, with a sense of shame. "I wasn't thinking."
There was no demonstration of sympathy on the part of his people when Shock returned to his work. One by one they came up after the evening service to shake hands with him and then to leave him alone. But that night, when all had gone except Ike, who was hovering about downstairs within call of Shock,--who, was sitting upstairs alone in the room which, in the fulness of his joy, he had set apart for his mother,--a voice was heard asking cautiously
"Is he in? "
"Yes, but I guess he's pretty tired," replied Ike doubtfully.
"I'd like to see him a minute," replied the voice, with a sudden huskiness.
"Oh! It's you, is it?" said Ike. "Well, come in. Yes, come right upstairs." And Carroll came heavily up the stairs with Patsy in his arms.
"Why, Carroll, this is awfully good of you!" exclaimed Shock, going to meet him.
"It's the little lad," said Carroll. "It's Patsy, he's breakin' the heart av him, an' he wants to see you, and, your riverince, it's meself--I want to--" The voice broke down completely.
"Come in, come in!" cried Shock, his tears flowing fast. "Come, Patsy, do you want to see me? Come on, old chap, I want you, too." He took the little cripple in his arms and held him tight while his tears fell upon Patsy's face and hands.
"Is it for your mother?" whispered Patsy in an awestruck tone.
"Yes, yes, Patsy dear," said Shock, who was fast losing control of himself, the long pent-up grief breaking through all barriers of self-control. "She's gone from me, Patsy lad."
"But," said the little boy, lifting up his beautiful face in wonder. "Sure, isn't she wid Jesus Himself and the blessed angels?"
"Oh, yes, Patsy, my boy! she is, and it's not right to grieve too much, but I cannot help it," said Shock, regaining control of himself. "But I am glad you came in to tell me, and we'll all try to be good men so that some day we'll all go there, too."
For a long time they sat looking out on the moon-lit lake and the distant hills, Shock telling the little lad he held in his arms of the beautiful country to which his mother had gone.
That night was the beginning of better things for the big Irishman. The revenge he had cherished for so many months passed out of his heart, and among his closest friends and his warmest companions Shock could count from that time forth Tim Carroll.