Chapter XII. The Shepherd and His Flock.
 

All that spring and summer things went smoothly in the Mutton Hollow neighborhood. The corn was ready to gather, and nothing had happened at the ranch since Mr. Howitt took charge, while the man, who had appeared so strangely in their midst, had made a large place for himself in the hearts of the simple mountaineers.

At first they were disposed to regard him with some distrust, as one apart; he was so unlike themselves. But when he had changed his dress for the rough garb of the hillsman, and, meeting them kindly upon their own ground, had entered so readily into their life, the people by common consent dropped the distinguishing title "Mister" for the more familiar one of the backwoods, "Dad." Not that they lacked in respect or courtesy; it was only their way. And the quiet shepherd accepted the title with a pleased smile, seeming to find in the change an honor to be received not lightly. But while showing such interest in all that made up their world, the man never opened the door for anyone to enter his past. They knew no more of his history than the hints he had given Mr. Matthews the night he came out of the mists.

At the occasional religious meetings in the school house at the Forks, Mr. Howitt was always present, an attentive listener to the sermons of the backwoods preacher. And then, seeing his interest, they asked him to talk to them one day when Parson Bigelow failed to make his appointment. "He don't holler so much as a regular parson," said Uncle Josh Hensley, "but he sure talks so we'uns can understand." From that time they always called upon him at their public gatherings.

So the scholar from the world beyond the ridges slipped quietly into the life of the mountain folk, and took firm root in their affections. And in his face, so "Preachin' Bill" said, was the look of one who had "done fought his fight to a finish, an' war too dead beat t' even be glad it war all over."

Between the giant Mr. Matthews and his shepherd, the friendship, begun that night, grew always stronger. In spite of the difference in education and training, they found much in common. Some bond of fellowship, unknown to the mountaineer, at least, drew them close, and the two men spent many evenings upon the front porch of the log house in quiet talk, while the shadows crept over the valley below; and the light went from the sky back of the clump of pines.

From the first Young Matt was strongly drawn to the stranger, who was to have such influence over his life, and Pete--Pete said that "God lived with Dad Howitt in Mutton Hollow."

Pete somehow knew a great deal about God these days. A strange comradeship had come to be between the thoughtful gentleman, who cared for the sheep, and the ignorant, sorely afflicted, and nameless backwoods boy. The two were always together, out on the hillside and in the little glens and valleys, during the day with the sheep, or at the ranch in the Hollow, when the flock was safely folded and the night slipped quietly over the timbered ridges. Mr. Howitt had fixed a bunk in his cabin for the boy, so that he could come and go at will. Often the shepherd awoke in the morning to find that some time during the night his strange friend had come in from his roving. Again, after seeing the boy soundly sleeping, the shepherd would arise in the morning to find the bunk empty.

Sammy Lane, too, had fallen under the charm of the man with the white hair and poet's face.

Sammy was not so often at the Matthews place after Ollie had gone to the city. The girl could not have told why. She had a vague feeling that it was better to stay away. But this feeling did not prevent her climbing the Old Trail to the Lookout on the shoulder of Dewey, and she spent hours at the big rock, looking over the valley to where the smoke from Aunt Mollie's kitchen curled above the trees. And sometimes, against the sky, she could see a man and a team moving slowly to and fro in the field back of the house. When this happened, Sammy always turned quickly away to where the far off line of hills lay like a long, low cloud against the sky.

Every week the girl rode her brown pony to the Postoffice at the Forks; and when she had a letter, things were different. She always stopped then at the Matthews home.

One day when this happened, Dad and Pete were on the ridge above the Old Trail, just where the north slope of Dewey shades into the rim of the Hollow. The elder man was seated on the ground in the shade of an oak, with his back against the trunk of the tree, while the boy lay full length on the soft grass, looking up into the green depths of foliage where a tiny brown bird flitted from bough to bough. In his quaint way, Pete was carrying on a conversation with his little friend in the tree top, translating freely the while for his less gifted, but deeply interested, companion on the ground below, when Brave, the shepherd dog, lying near, interrupted the talk by a short bark. Looking up, they saw Young Matt riding along the summit of the ridge.

The young man paused when he heard the dog, and caught sight of the two under the tree; then he came to them, and seated himself on the grass at Pete's side. He spoke no word of greeting, and the look on his face was not good to see.

Pete's eyes went wide with fear at the manner of his big friend, and he drew back as if to run, but when Young Matt, throwing himself over on the grass, had hidden his face, a half sad, half knowing look came into the lad's delicate features; reaching forth a hand, as slim as a girl's, he stroked the shaggy, red brown head, as he murmured softly, "Poor Matt. Poor Matt. Does it hurt? Is Matt hurt? It'll be better by-and-by."

The great form on the grass stirred impatiently. The shepherd spoke no word. Pete continued, stroking the big head, and talking in low, soothing tones, as one would hush a child, "Pete don't know what's a hurtin' Young Matt, but it'll be alright, some day. It'll sure grow over after awhile. Ain't nothing won't grow over after awhile; 'cause God he says so."

Still the older man was silent. Then the giant burst forth in curses, and the shepherd spoke, "Don't do that, Grant. It's not like you, lad. You cannot help your trouble that way."

Young Matt turned over to face his friend; "I know it, Dad;" he growled defiantly; "but I just got to say somethin'; I ain't meanin' no disrespect to God 'lmighty, and I reckon He ought to know it; but--" he broke forth again.

Pete drew back in alarm. "Look your trouble in the face, lad," said the shepherd; "don't let it get you down like this."

"Look it in the face!" roared the other. "Good God! that's just it! ain't I a lookin' it in the face every day? You don't know about it, Dad. If you did, you--you'd cuss too." He started in again.

"I know more than you think, Grant," said the other, when the big fellow had stopped swearing to get his breath. While he spoke, the shepherd was looking away along the Old Trail. "There comes your trouble now," he added, pointing to a girl on a brown pony, coming slowly out of the timber near the deer lick. The young man made no reply. Pete, at sight of the girl, started to his feet, but the big fellow pulled him down again, and made the boy understand that he must not betray their position.

When Sammy reached the sheep, she checked her pony, and searched the hillside with her eyes, while her clear call went over the mountain, "Oh--h--h--Dad!"

Young Matt shook his head savagely at his companion, and even Brave was held silent by a low "Be still" from his master.

Again Sammy looked carefully on every side, but lying on the higher ground, and partly hidden by the trees, the little group could not be seen. When there was no answer to her second call, the girl drew a letter from her pocket, and, permitting the pony to roam at will, proceeded to read.

The big man, looking on, cursed again beneath his breath. "It's from Ollie," he whispered to his companions. "She stopped at the house. He says his uncle will give me a job in the shops, and that it'll be fine for me, 'cause Ollie will be my boss himself. He my boss! Why, dad burn his sneakin' little soul, I could crunch him with one hand. I'd see him in hell before I'd take orders from him. I told her so, too," he finished savagely.

"And what did she say?" asked the shepherd quietly, his eyes on the girl below.

"Just said, kind o' short like, that she reckoned I could. Then I come away."

The girl finished her letter, and, after another long call for Dad, moved on over the shoulder of the mountain. Pete, who had withdrawn a little way from his companions, was busily talking in his strange manner to his unseen friends.

Then Young Matt opened his heart to the shepherd and told him all. It was the old, old story; and, as Mr. Howitt listened, dreams that he had thought dead with the death of his only son, stirred again in his heart, and his deep voice was vibrant with emotion as he sought to comfort the lad who had come to him.

While they talked, the sun dropped until its lower edge touched the top of the tallest pine on Wolf Ridge, and the long shadows lay over the valley below. "I'm mighty sorry I let go and cuss, Dad," finished, the boy. "But I keep a holdin' in, and a holdin' in, 'til I'm plumb wild; then something happens like that letter, and I go out on the range and bust. I've often wished you knowed. Seems like your just knowin' about it will help me to hold on. I get scared at myself sometimes, Dad, I do, honest."

"I'm glad, too, that you have told me, Grant. It means more to me than you can guess. I--I had a boy once, you know. He was like you. He would have come to me this way, if he had lived."

The sheep had begun working toward the lower ground. The shepherd rose to his feet. "Take them home, Brave. Come on, boys, you must eat with me at the ranch, to-night." Then the three friends, the giant mountaineer, the strangely afflicted youth, and the old scholar went down the mountain side together.

As they disappeared in the timber on the lower level, the bushes, near which they had been sitting, parted silently, and a man's head and shoulders appeared from behind a big rook. The man watched the strange companions out of sight. Then the bushes swayed together, and the mountain seemed to have swallowed him up.

The three friends had just finished their supper when Pete saw Sammy entering the ranch clearing. Young Matt caught up his hat. At the rear door he paused. "I've got to go now, Dad," he said awkwardly. "I can't see her any more to-day. But if you'll let me, I'll come again when things get too hot."

The shepherd held out his hand, "I understand. Come always, my boy."

The big fellow, with Pete, skipped away into the timber at the rear of the cabin, a moment before Sammy appeared at the open door in front.