Ridgway of Montana by William MacLeod Raine
Chapter 24. A Good Samaritan
Yesler, still moving slowly with a walking stick by reason of his green wound, left the street-car and made his way up Forest Road to the house which bore the number 792. In the remote past there had been some spasmodic attempt to cultivate grass and raise some shade-trees along the sidewalks, but this had long since been given up as abortive. An air of decay hung over the street, the unmistakable suggestion of better days. This was writ large over the house in front of which Yesler stopped. The gate hung on one hinge, boards were missing from the walk, and a dilapidated shutter, which had once been green, swayed in the breeze.
A woman of about thirty, dark and pretty but poorly dressed, came to the door in answer to his ring. Two little children, a boy and a girl, with their mother's shy long-lashed Southern eyes of brown, clung to her skirts and gazed at the stranger.
"This is where Mr. Pelton lives, is it not?" he asked.
"Is he at home?"
"May I see him?"
"I'm sorry to hear it. Too sick to be seen? If not, I should like very much to see him. I have business with him."
The young woman looked at him a little defiantly and a little suspiciously. "Are you a reporter?"
Sam smiled. "No, ma'am."
"Does he owe you money" He could see the underlying blood dye her dusky cheeks when she asked the question desperately, as it seemed to him with a kind of brazen shame to which custom had inured her. She had somehow the air of some gentle little creature of the forests defending her young.
"Not a cent, ma'am. I don't want to do him any harm."
"I didn't hear your name."
"I haven't mentioned it," he admitted, with the sunny smile that was a letter of recommendation in itself. "Fact is I'd rather not tell it till he sees me."
From an adjoining room a querulous voice broke into their conversation. "Who is it, Norma?"
"A gentleman to see you, Tom."
"Who is it?" more sharply.
"It is I, Mr. Pelton. I came to have a talk with you." Yesler pushed forward into the dingy sitting-room with the pertinacity of a bookagent. "I heard you were not well, and I came to find out if I can do anything for you."
The stout man lying on the lounge grew pale before the blood reacted in a purple flush. His very bulk emphasized the shabbiness of the stained and almost buttonless Prince Albert coat he wore, the dinginess of the little room he seemed to dwarf.
"Leave my house, seh. You have ruined this family, and you come to gloat on your handiwork. Take a good look, and then go, Mr. Yesler. You see my wife in cotton rags doing her own work. Is it enough, seh?"
The slim little woman stepped across the room and took her place beside her husband. Her eyes flashed fire at the man she held responsible for the fall of her husband. Yesler's generous heart applauded the loyalty which was proof against both disgrace and poverty. For in the past month both of these had fallen heavily upon her. Tom Pelton had always lived well, and during the past few years he had speculated in ventures far beyond his means. Losses had pursued him, and he had looked to the senatorship to recoup himself and to stand off the creditors pressing hard for payment. Instead he had been exposed, disgraced, and finally disbarred for attempted bribery. Like a horde of hungry rats his creditors had pounced upon the discredited man and wrested from him the remnants of his mortgaged property. He had been forced to move into a mere cottage and was a man without a future. For the only profession at which he had skill enough to make a living was the one from which he had been cast as unfit to practise it. The ready sympathy of the cattleman had gone out to the politician who was down and out. He had heard the situation discussed enough to guess pretty close to the facts, and he could not let himself rest until he had made some effort to help the man whom his exposure had ruined, or, rather, had hastened to ruin, for that result had been for years approaching.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Pelton. If I've injured you I want to make it right."
"Make it right!" The former congressman got up with an oath. "Make it right! Can you give me back my reputation, my future? Can you take away the shame that has come upon my wife, and that my children will have to bear in the years to come? Can you give us back our home, our comfort, our peace of mind?"
"No, I can't do this, but I can help you to do it all," the cattleman made answer quietly.
He offered no defense, though he knew perfectly well none was needed. He had no responsibility in the calamity that had befallen this family. Pelton's wrong-doing had come home to those he loved, and he could rightly blame nobody but himself. However much he might arraign those who had been the agents of his fall, he knew in his heart that the fault had been his own.
Norma Pelton, tensely self-repressed, spoke now. "How can you do this, sir?"
"I can't do it so long as you hold me for an enemy, ma'am. I'm ready to cry quits with your husband and try a new deal. If I injured him he tried to even things up. Well, let's say things are squared and start fresh. I've got a business proposition to make if you're willing to listen to it."
"What sort of a proposition?"
"I'm running about twenty-five thousand sheep up in the hills. I've just bought a ranch with a comfortable ranch-house on it for a kind of central point. My winter feeding will all be done from it as a chief place of distribution. Same with the shearing and shipping. I want a good man to put in charge of my sheep as head manager, and I would be willing to pay a proper salary. There ain't any reason why this shouldn't work into a partnership if he makes good. With wool jumping, as it's going to do in the next four years, the right kind of man can make himself independent for life. My idea is to increase my holdings right along, and let my manager in as a partner as soon as he shows he is worth it. Now that ranch-house is a decent place. There's a pretty good school, ma'am, for the children. The folks round that neighborhood may not have any frills, but--"
"Are you offering Tom the place as manager?" she demanded, in amazement.
"That was my idea, ma'am. It's not what you been used to, o' course, but if you're looking for a change I thought I'd speak of it," he said diffidently.
She looked at him in a dumb surprise. She, too, in her heart knew that this man was blameless. He had done his duty, and had nearly lost his life for it at the hands of her husband. Now, he had come to lift them out of the hideous nightmare into which they had fallen. He had come to offer them peace and quiet and plenty in exchange for the future of poverty and shame and despair which menaced them. They were to escape into God's great hills, away from the averted looks and whispering tongues and the temptations to drown his trouble that so constantly beset the father of her children. Despite his faults she still loved Tom Pelton; he was a kind and loving husband and father. Out on the range there still waited a future for him. When she thought of it a lump rose in her throat for very happiness. She, who had been like a rock beside him in his trouble, broke down now and buried her head in her husband's coat.
"Don't you, honey--now, don't you cry." The big man had lost all his pomposity, and was comforting his sweetheart as simply as a boy. "It's all been my fault. I've been doing wrong for years--trying to pull myself out of the mire by my bootstraps. By Gad, you're a man, Sam Yesler, that's what you are. If I don't turn ovah a new leaf I'd ought to be shot. We'll make a fresh start, sweetheart. Dash me, I'm nothing but a dashed baby." And with that the overwrought man broke down, too.
Yesler, moved a good deal himself, maintained the burden of the conversation cheerfully.
"That's all settled, then. Tell you I'm right glad to get a competent man to put in charge. Things have been running at loose ends, because I haven't the time to look after them. This takes a big load off my mind. You better arrange to go up there with me as soon as you have time, Pelton, and look the ground over. You'll want to make some changes if you mean to take your family up there. Better to spend a few hundreds and have things the way you want them for Mrs. Pelton than to move in with things not up to the mark. Of course, I'll put the house in the shape you want it. But we can talk of that after we look it over."
In his embarrassment he looked so much the boy, so much the culprit caught stealing apples and up for sentence, that Norma Pelton's gratitude took courage. She came across to him and held out both hands, the shimmer of tears still in the soft brown eyes.
"You've given us more than life, Mr. Yesler. You can't ever know what you have done for us. Some things are worse than death to some people. I don't mean poverty, but--other things. We can begin again far away from this tainted air that has poisoned us. I know it isn't good form to be saying this. One shouldn't have feelings in public. But I don't care. I think of the children--and Tom. I didn't expect ever to be happy again, but we shall. I feel it."
She broke down again and dabbed at her eyes with her kerchief. Sam, very much embarrassed but not at all displeased at this display of feeling, patted her dark hair and encouraged her to composure.
"There. It's all right, now, ma'am. Sure you'll be happy. Any mother that's got kids like these--"
He caught up the little girl in his arms by way of diverting attention from himself.
This gave a new notion to the impulsive little woman.
"I want you to kiss them both. Come here, Kennie. This is Mr. Yesler, and he is the best man you've ever seen. I want you to remember that he has been our best friend."
"Oh, sho, ma'am!" protested the overwhelmed cattleman, kissing both the children, nevertheless.
Pelton laughed. He felt a trifle hysterical himself. "If she thinks it she'll say it when she feels that way. I'm right surprised she don't kiss you, too."
"I will," announced Norma promptly, with a pretty little tide of color.
She turned toward him, and Yesler, laughing, met the red lips of the new friend he had made.
"Now, you've got just grounds for shooting me," he said gaily, and instantly regretted his infelicitous remark
For both husband and wife fell grave at his words. It was Pelton that answered them.
"I've been taught a lesson, Mr. Yesler. I'm never going to pack a gun again as long as I live, unless I'm hunting or something of that sort, and I'm never going to drink another drop of liquor. It's all right for some men, but it isn't right for me."
"Glad to hear it. I never did believe in the hip-pocket habit. I've lived here twenty years, and I never found it necessary except on special occasions. When it comes to whisky, I reckon we'd all be better without it."
Yesler made his escape at the earliest opportunity and left them alone together. He lunched at the club, attended to some correspondence he had, and about 3:30 drifted down the street toward the post-office. He had expectations of meeting a young woman who often passed about that time on her way home from school duties.
It was, however, another young woman whose bow he met in front of Mesa's largest department store.
"Good afternoon, Miss Balfour."
She nodded greeting and cast eyes of derision on him.
"I've been hearing about you. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
"Yes, ma'am. What for in particular? There are so many things."
"You're a fine Christian, aren't you?" she scoffed.
"I ain't much of a one. That's a fact," he admitted. "What is it this time--poker?"
"No, it isn't poker. Worse than that. You've been setting a deplorable example to the young."
"To young ladies--like Miss Virginia?" he wanted to know.
"No, to young Christians. I don't know what our good deacons will say about it." She illuminated her severity with a flashing smile. "Don't you know that the sins of the fathers are to descend upon their children even to the third and fourth generation? Don't you know that when a man does wrong he must die punished, and his children and his wife, of course, and that the proper thing to do is to stand back and thank Heaven we haven't been vile sinners?"
"Now, don't you begin on that, Miss Virginia," he warned.
"And after the man had disgraced himself and shot you, after all respectable people had given him an extra kick to let him know he must stay down and had then turned their backs upon him. I'm not surprised that you're ashamed."
"Where did you get hold of this fairy-tale?" he plucked up courage to demand.
"From Norma Pelton. She told me everything, the whole story from beginning to end."
"It's right funny you should be calling on her, and you a respectable young lady--unless you went to deliver that extra kick you was mentioning," he grinned.
She dropped her raillery. "It was splendid. I meant to ask Mr. Ridgway to do something for them, but this is so much better. It takes them away from the place of his disgrace and away from temptation. Oh, I don't wonder Norma kissed you."
"She told you that, too, did she?"
"Yes. I should have done it, too, in her place."
He glanced round placidly. "It's a right public place here, but--"
"Don't be afraid. I'm not going to." And before she disappeared within the portals of the department store she gave him one last thrust. "It's not so public up in the library. Perhaps if you happen to be going that way "
She left her communication a fragment, but he thought it worth acting upon. Among the library shelves he found Laska deep in a new volume on domestic science.
"This ain't any kind of day to be fooling away your time on cook-books. Come out into the sun and live," he invited.
They walked past the gallows-frames and the slag-dumps and the shaft-houses into the brown hills beyond the point where green copper streaks showed and spurred the greed of man. It was a day of spring sunshine, the good old earth astir with her annual recreation. The roadside was busy with this serious affair of living. Ants and crawling things moved to and fro about their business. Squirrels raced across the road and stood up at a safe distance to gaze at these intruders. Birds flashed back and forth, hurried little carpenters busy with the specifications for their new nests. Eager palpitating life was the key-note of the universe.
"Virginia told me about the Peltons," Laska said, after a pause.
"It's spreading almost as fast as if it were a secret," he smiled. "I'm expecting to find it in the paper when we get back."
"I'm so glad you did it."
"Well, you're to blame."
"I!" She looked at him in surprise.
"Partly. You told me how things were going with them. That seemed to put it up to me to give Pelton a chance."
"I certainly didn't mean it that way. I had no right to ask you to do anything about it."
"Mebbe it was the facts put it up to me. Anyhow, I felt responsible."
"Mr. Roper once told me that you always feel responsible when you hear anybody is in trouble," the young woman answered.
"Roper's a goat. Nobody ever pays any attention to him."
Presently they diverged from the road and sat down on a great flat rock which dropped out from the hillside like a park seat. For he was still far from strong and needed frequent rests. Their talk was desultory, for they had reached that stage of friendship at which it is not necessary to bridge silence with idle small talk. Here, by some whim of fate, the word was spoken. He knew he loved her, but he had not meant to say it yet.
But when her steady gray eyes came back to his after a long stillness, the meeting brought him a strange feeling that forced his hand.
"I love you, Laska. Will you be my wife?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, Sam," she answered directly. That was all. It was settled with a word. There in the sunshine he kissed her and sealed the compact, and afterward, when the sun was low among the hill spurs, they went back happily to take up again the work that awaited them.