Chapter X. The Home-Coming of the Shantymen
 

For some weeks Ranald was not seen by any one belonging to the manse. Hughie reported that he was not at church, nor at Bible class, and although this was not in itself an extraordinary thing, still Mrs. Murray was uneasy, and Hughie felt that church was a great disappointment when Ranald was not there.

In their visits to Macdonald Dubh the minister and his wife never could see Ranald. His Aunt Kirsty could not understand or explain his reluctance to attend the public services, nor his unwillingness to appear in the house on the occasion of the minister's visits. "He is busy with the fences and about the stables preparing for the spring's work," she said; "but, indeed, he is very queer whatever, and I cannot make him out at all." Macdonald Dubh himself said nothing. But the books and magazines brought by the minister's wife were always read. "Indeed, when once he gets down to his book," his aunt complained, "neither his bed nor his dinner will move him."

The minister thought little of the boy's "vagaries," but to his wife came many an anxious thought about Ranald and his doings. She was more disappointed than she cared to confess, even to herself, that the boy seemed to be quite indifferent to the steadily deepening interest in spiritual things that marked the members of her Bible class.

While she was planning how to reach him once more, an event occurred which brought him nearer to her than he had ever been before. As they were sitting one evening at tea, the door unexpectedly opened, and without announcement, in walked Ranald, splashed with hard riding, pale, and dazed. Without a word of reply to the greetings that met him from all at the table, he went straight to the minister's wife, handed her an opened letter, and stood waiting. It was addressed to Ranald himself, and was the first he had ever received in his life. It was from Yankee Jim, and read as follows:

Dear Ranald--The Boss aint feelin like ritin much and the rest of the boys is all broke up, and so he told me to rite to you and to tell you some purty bad news. I don't know how to go about it, but the fact is, Mack Cameron got drownded yesterday tryin to pull a little fool of a Frenchman out of the river just below the Lachine. We'd just got through the rough water and were lyin nice and quiet, gettin things together again when that ijit Frenchman got tite and got tryin some fool trick or other walking a timber stick and got upsot into the wet. I'd a let him go, you bet, but Mack cudn't stand to see him bobbin up and down so he ripped off and in after him. He got him too, but somehow the varmint gripped him round the neck. They went down but we got em out purty quick and the Frenchman come round all right, but somehow Mack wouldn't, choked appearinly by that tarnel little fool who aint worth one of Mack's fingers, and if killin him wud do any good, then he wudn't be livin long. We are all feelin purty bad. We are comin' home on Thursday by Cornwall, eight or ten of us. The rest will go on with the rafts. The Boss says, better have rigs to meet us and Mack. That's all. I haint no good at weepin', never was, wish I cud somehow, it might ease off a feller a little, but tell you what, Ranald, I haint felt so queer since I was a boy lookin at my mother in her coffin. There was nothin mean about Mack. He was good to the heart. He wud do his work slick and never a growl or a groan, and when you wanted a feller to your back, Mack was there. I know there aint no use goin on like this. All I say is, ther's a purty big hole in the world for us to-night. Boss says you'd better tell the minister. He says he's good stuff and he'll know what to do at Mack's home. No more at present. Good-bye. Yours truely,

J. LATHAM.

The minister's wife began reading the letter, wondering not a little at Ranald's manner, but when she came to the words, "Mack Cameron got drownded," she laid the letter down with a little cry. Her husband came quickly to her, took up the letter, and read it to the end.

"I will go at once," he said, and rang the bell. "Tell Lambert to put Black in the buggy immediately, Jessie," he said, when the maid appeared. "Do you think you ought to go, my dear?"

"Yes, yes, I shall be ready in a moment; but, oh, what can we do or say?"

"Perhaps you had better not go. It will be very trying," said the minister.

"Oh, yes, I must go. I must. The poor mother!" Then she turned to Ranald as the minister left the room. "You are going home, Ranald, I suppose," she said.

"No, I was thinking I would go to tell the people. Donald Ross will go, and the Campbells, and Farquhar McNaughton's light wagon would be best--for the--for Mack. And then I will go round by the McGregors."

Ranald had been thinking things out and making his plans.

"But that will be a long round for you," said Mrs. Murray. "Could not we go by the Campbells', and they will send word to Donald Ross?"

"I think it would be better for me to go, to make sure of the teams."

"Very well, then. Good by, Ranald," said the minister's wife, holding out her hand to him.

But still Ranald lingered. "It will be hard on Bella Peter," he said, in a low voice, looking out of the window.

"Bella Peter? Bella McGregor?"

"Yes," said Ranald, embarrassed and hesitating. "She was Mack's-- Mack was very fond of her, whatever."

"Oh, Ranald!" she cried, "do you say so? Are you sure of that?"

"Yes, I am sure," said Ranald, simply. "The boys in the shanty would be teasing Mack about it, and one day Mack told me something, and I know quite well."

"I will go to her," said Mrs. Murray.

"That will be very good," said Ranald, much relieved. "And I will be going with you that way."

As Mrs. Murray left the room, Maimie came around to where Ranald was standing and said to him, gently, "You knew him well, didn't you?"

"Yes," replied Ranald, in an indifferent tone, as if unwilling to talk with her about it.

"And you were very fond of him?" went on Maimie.

Ranald caught the tremor in her voice and looked at her. "Yes," he said, with an effort. "He was good to me in the camp. Many's the time he made it easy for me. He was next to Macdonald Bhain with the ax, and, man, he was the grand fighter--that is," he added, adopting the phrase of the Macdonald gang, "when it was a plain necessity." Then, forgetting himself, he began to tell Maimie how Big Mack had borne himself in the great fight a few weeks before. But he had hardly well begun when suddenly he stopped with a groan. "But now he is dead--he is dead. I will never see him no more."

He was realizing for the first time his loss. Maimie came nearer him, and laying her hand timidly on his arm, said, "I am sorry, Ranald"; and Ranald turned once more and looked at her, as if surprised that she should show such feeling.

"Yes," he said, "I believe you are sorry."

Her big blue eyes filled suddenly with tears.

"Do you wonder that I am sorry? Do you think I have no heart at all?" she burst forth, impetuously.

"Indeed, I don't know," said Ranald. "Why should you care? You do not know him."

"But haven't you just told me how splendid he was, and how good he was to you, and how much you thought of him, and--" Maimie checked her rush of words with a sudden blush, and then hurried on to say, "Besides, think of his mother, and all of them."

While Maimie was speaking, Ranald had been scanning her face as if trying to make up his mind about her.

"I am glad you are sorry," he said, slowly, gazing with so searching a look into her eyes that she let them fall.

At this moment Mrs. Murray entered ready for her ride.

"Is the pony come?" she asked.

"Indeed, it is the slouch I am," said Ranald, and he hurried off to the stable, returning in a very short time with the pony saddled.

"You would not care to go with your uncle, Maimie?" said Mrs. Murray, as Lambert drove up Black in the buggy.

"No, auntie, I think not," said Maimie. "I will take care of Hughie and the baby."

"Good by, then, my dear," said Mrs. Murray, kissing her.

"Good by, Ranald," said Maimie, as he turned away to get his colt.

"Good by," he said, awkwardly. He felt like lifting his cap, but hesitated to do anything so extremely unnatural. With the boys in that country such an act of courtesy was regarded as a sign of "pride," if not of weakness.

Their way lay along the concession line for a mile, and then through the woods by the bridle-path to Peter McGregor's clearing. The green grass ran everywhere--along the roadside, round the great stump roots, over the rough pasture-fields, softening and smoothing wherever it went. The woods were flushing purple, with just a tinge of green from the bursting buds. The balsams and spruces still stood dark in the swamps, but the tamaracks were shyly decking themselves in their exquisite robes of spring, and through all the bush the air was filled with soft sounds and scents. In earth and air, in field and forest, life, the new spring life, ran riot. How strangely impertinent death appeared, and how unlovely in such a world of life!

As they left the concession road and were about to strike into the woods, Mrs. Murray checked her pony, and looking upon the loveliness about her, said, softly, "How beautiful it all is!"

There was no response from Ranald, and Mrs. Murray, glancing at his gloomy face, knew that his heart was sore at the thought of the pain they were bearing with them. She hesitated a few moments, and then said, gently: "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. And there shall be no more death."

But still Ranald made no reply, and they rode on through the bush in silence till they came to the clearing beyond. As they entered the brule, Ranald checked his colt, and holding up his hand, said, "Listen!"

Through the quiet evening air, sweet and clear as a silver bell, came the long, musical note of the call that brings the cows home for the milking. It was Bella's voice: "Ko--boss, ko--boss, ko--boss!"

Far across the brule they could see her standing on a big pine stump near the bars, calling to her cows that were slowly making toward her through the fallen timber, pausing here and there to crop an especially rich mouthful, and now and then responding to her call with soft lowings. Gently Bella chid them. "Come, Blossom, come away now; you are very lazy. Come, Lily; what are you waiting for? You slow old poke!" Then again the long, musical note: "Ko--boss, ko--boss, ko--boss!"

Ranald groaned aloud, "Och-hone! It will be her last glad hour," he said; "it is a hard, hard thing."

"Poor child, poor child!" said Mrs. Murray; "the Lord help her. It will be a cruel blow."

"That it is, a cruel blow," said Ranald, bitterly; so bitterly that Mrs. Murray glanced at him in surprise and saw his face set in angry pain.

"The Lord knows best, Ranald," she said, gravely, "and loves best, too."

"It will break her heart, whatever," answered Ranald, shortly.

"He healeth the broken in heart," said Mrs. Murray, softly. Ranald made no reply, but let the colt take her way through the brule toward the lane into which Bella had now got her cows. How happy the girl was! Joy filled every tone of her voice. And why not? It was the springtime, the time of life and love. Long winter was gone, and soon her brothers would be back from the shanties. "And Mack, too," she whispered to her happy heart.

     "And are ye sure the news is true?
        And are ye sure he's weel?
      Is this a time to think o' wark?
        Ye jades, fling by your wheel.

     "For there's nae luck aboot the hoose,
        There's nae luck ava,
      There's little pleesure in the hoose
        When oor gude man's awa."

So she sang, not too loud; for the boys were at the barn and she would never hear the end of it.

"Well, Bella, you are getting your cows home. How are you, my dear?"

Bella turned with a scarlet face to meet the minister's wife, and her blushes only became deeper when she saw Ranald, for she felt quite certain that Ranald would understand the meaning of her song.

"I will go on with the cows," said Ranald, in a hoarse voice, and Mrs. Murray, alighting, gave him her pony to lead.

Peter McGregor was a stern man to his own family, and to all the world, with the single exception of his only daughter, Bella. His six boys he kept in order with a firm hand, and not one of them would venture to take a liberty with him. But Bella had no fear of his grim face and stern ways, and "just twiddled her father round her finger," as her mother said, with a great show of impatience. But, in spite of all her petting from her big brothers and her father, Bella remained quite unspoiled, the light of her home and the joy of her father's heart. It had not escaped the father's jealous eye that Big Mack Cameron found occasion for many a visit to the boys on an evening when the day's work was done, and that from the meetings he found his shortest way home round by the McGregor's. At first the old man was very gruff with him, and was for sending him about his business, but his daughter's happy face, and the light in her eyes, that could mean only one thing, made him pause, and after a long and sleepless night, he surprised his daughter the next morning with a word of gentle greeting and an unusual caress, and thenceforth took Big Mack to his heart. Not that any word or explanation passed between them; it had not come to that as yet; but Big Mack felt the change, and gave him thenceforth the obedience and affection of a son.

The old man was standing in the yard, waiting to help with the milking.

Ranald drove the cows in, and then, tying up the horses, went straight to him.

"I bring bad news, Mr. McGregor," he said, anxious to get done with his sad task. "There has been an accident on the river, and Mack Cameron is drowned."

"What do you say, boy?" said Peter, in a harsh voice.

"He was trying to save a Frenchman, and when they got him out he was dead," said Ranald, hurrying through his tale, for he saw the two figures coming up the lane and drawing nearer.

"Dead!" echoed the old man. "Big Mack! God help me."

"And they will be wanting a team," continued Ranald, "to go to Cornwall to-morrow."

The old man stood for a few moments, looking stupidly at Ranald. Then, lifting his hat from his gray head, he said, brokenly: "My poor girl! Would God I had died for him."

Ranald turned away and stood looking down the lane, shrinking from the sight of the old man's agony. Then, turning back to him, he said: "The minister's wife is coming yonder with Bella."

The old man started, and with a mighty effort commanding himself, said, "Now may God help me!" and went to meet his daughter.

Through the gloom of the falling night Ranald could see the frightened white face and the staring, tearless eyes. They came quite near before Bella caught sight of her father. For a moment she hesitated, till the old man, without a word, beckoned her to him. With a quick little run she was in his arms, where she lay moaning, as if in sore bodily pain. Her father held her close to him, murmuring over her fond Gaelic words, while Ranald and Mrs. Murray went over to the horses and stood waiting there.

"I will go now to Donald Ross," Ranald said, in a low voice, to the minister's wife. He mounted the colt and was riding off, when Peter called him back.

"The boys will take the wagon to-morrow," he said.

"They will meet at the Sixteenth at daylight," replied Ranald; and then to Mrs. Murray he said, "I will come back this way for you. It will soon be dark."

But Bella, hearing him, cried to her: "Oh, you will not go?"

"Not if you need me, Bella," said Mrs. Murray, putting her arms around her. "Ranald will run in and tell them at home." This Ranald promised to do, and rode away on his woeful journey; and before he reached home that night, the news had spread far and wide, from house to house, like a black cloud over a sunny sky.

The home-coming of the men from the shanties had ever been a time of rejoicing in the community. The Macdonald gang were especially welcome, for they always came back with honor and with the rewards of their winter's work. There was always a series of welcoming gatherings in the different homes represented in the gang, and there, in the midst of the admiring company, tales would be told of the deeds done and the trials endured, of the adventures on the river and the wonders of the cities where they had been. All were welcome everywhere, and none more than Big Mack Cameron. Brimming with good nature, and with a remarkable turn for stories, he was the center of every group of young people wherever he went; and at the "bees" for logging or for building or for cradling, Big Mack was held in honor, for he was second in feats of strength only to Macdonald Bhain himself. It was with no common grief that people heard the word that they were bringing him home dead.

At the Sixteenth next morning, before the break of day, Ranald stood in the gloom waiting for the coming of the teams. He had been up most of the night and he was weary in body and sore at heart, but Macdonald Bhain had trusted him, and there must be no mistake. One by one the teams arrived. First to appear was Donald Ross, the elder. For years he had given over the driving of his team to his boys, but to-day he felt that respect to the family demanded his presence on such an errand as this; and besides, he knew well that his son Dannie, Mack's special chum, would expect him to so honor the home-coming of his dead friend. Peter McGregor, fearing to leave his daughter for that long and lonely day, sent his son John in his place. It was with difficulty that Mack's father, Long John Cameron, had been persuaded to remain with the mother and to allow Murdie to go in his stead.

The last to arrive was Farquhar McNaughton, Kirsty's Farquhar, with his fine black team and new light wagon. To him was to be given the honor of bearing the body home. Gravely they talked and planned, and then left all to Ranald to execute.

"You will see to these things, Ranald, my man, said Donald Ross, with the air of one giving solemn charge. "Let all things be done decently and in order."

"I will try," said Ranald, simply. But Farquhar McNaughton looked at him doubtfully.

"It is a peety," he said, "there is not one with more experience. He is but a lad."

But Donald Ross had been much impressed with Ranald's capable manner the night before.

"Never you fear, Farquhar," he replied; "Ranald is not one to fail us."

As Ranald stood watching the wagons rumbling down the road and out of sight, he felt as if years must have passed since he had received the letter that had laid on him the heavy burden of this sad news. That his uncle, Macdonald Bhain, should have sent the word to him brought Ranald a sense of responsibility that awakened the man in him, and he knew he would feel himself a boy no more. And with that new feeling of manhood stirring within him, he went about his work that day, omitting no detail in arrangement for the seemly conduct of the funeral.

Night was falling as the wagons rumbled back again from Cornwall, bringing back the shantymen and their dead companion. Up through the Sixteenth, where a great company of people stood silent and with bared heads, the sad procession moved, past the old church, up through the swamp, and so onward to the home of the dead. None of the Macdonald gang turned aside to their homes till they had given their comrade over into the keeping of his own people. By the time the Cameron's gate was reached the night had grown thick and black, and the drivers were glad enough of the cedar bark torches that Ranald and Don waved in front of the teams to light the way up the lane. In silence Donald Ross, who was leading, drove up his team to the little garden gate and allowed the great Macdonald and Dannie to alight.

At the gate stood Long John Cameron, silent and self-controlled, but with face showing white and haggard in the light of the flaring torches. Behind him, in the shadow, stood the minister. For a few moments they all remained motionless and silent. The time was too great for words, and these men knew when it was good to hold their peace. At length Macdonald Bhain broke the silence, saying in his great deep voice, as he bared his head: "Mr. Cameron, I have brought you back your son, and God is my witness, I would his place were mine this night."

"Bring him in, Mr. Macdonald," replied the father, gravely and steadily. "Bring him in. It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth Him good."

Then six of the Macdonald men came forward from the darkness, Curly and Yankee leading the way, and lifted the coffin from Farquhar's wagon, and reverently, with heads uncovered, they followed the torches to the door. There they stopped suddenly, for as they reached the threshold, there arose a low, long, heart-smiting cry from within. At the sound of that cry Ranald staggered as if struck by a blow, and let his torch fall to the ground. The bearers waited, looking at each other in fear.

"Whisht, Janet, woman!" said Long John, gravely. "Your son is at the door."

"Ah, indeed, that he is, that he is! My son! My son!"

She stood in the doorway with hands uplifted and with tears streaming down her face. "Come in, Malcolm; come in, my boy. Your mother is waiting for you."

Then they carried him in and laid him in the "room," and retiring to the kitchen, sat down to watch the night.

In half an hour the father came out and found them there.

"You have done what you could, Mr. Macdonald," he said, addressing him for all, "and I will not be unmindful of your kindness. But now you can do no more. Your wife and your people will be waiting you."

"And, please God, in good time they will be seeing us. As for me, I will neither go to my home nor up into my bed, but I will watch by the man who was my faithful friend and companion till he is laid away."

And in this mind he and his men remained firm, taking turns at the watching all that night and the next day.

As Macdonald finished speaking, the minister came into the kitchen, bringing with him the mother and the children. The men all rose to their feet, doing respect to the woman and to her grief. When they were seated again, the minister rose and said: "My friends, this is a night for silence and not for words. The voice of the Lord is speaking in our ears. It becomes us to hear, and to submit ourselves to His holy will. Let us pray."

As Ranald listened to the prayer, he could not help thinking how different it was from those he was accustomed to hear from the pulpit. Solemn, simple, and direct, it lifted the hearts of all present up to the throne of God, to the place of strength and of peace. There was no attempt to explain the "mystery of the Providence," but there was a sublime trust that refused to despair even in the presence of impenetrable darkness.

After the minister had gone, Macdonald Bhain took Ranald aside and asked him as to the arrangements for the funeral. When Ranald had explained to him every detail, Macdonald laid his hand on his nephew's shoulder and said, kindly, "It is well done, Ranald. Now you will be going home, and in the morning you will see your aunt, and if she will be wishing to come to the wake to-morrow night, then you will bring her."

Then Ranald went home, feeling well repaid for his long hours of anxiety and toil.