Chapter XX. The Shepherd Writes a Letter.

To purchase the sheep and the ranch in the Hollow, Mr. Matthews placed a heavy mortgage not only upon the ranch land but upon the homestead as well. In the loss of his stock the woodsman would lose all he had won in years of toil from the mountain wilderness.

When the total failure of the crops became a certainty, and it was clear that the country could not produce enough feed to carry his flock through the winter until the spring grass, Mr. Matthews went to the settlement hoping to get help from the bank there, where he was known.

He found the little town in confusion and the doors of the bank closed. The night before a band of men had entered the building, and, forcing the safe, had escaped to the mountains with their booty.

Old Matt's interview with the bank official was brief. "It is simply impossible, Mr. Matthews," said the man; "as it is, we shall do well to keep our own heads above water."

Then the mountaineer had come the long way home. As he rode slowly up the last hill, the giant form stooped with a weariness unusual, and the rugged face looked so worn and hopelessly sad, that Aunt Mollie, who was waiting at the gate, did not need words to tell her of his failure. The old man got stiffly down from his horse, and when he had removed saddle and bridle, and had turned the animal into the lot, the two walked toward the house. But they did not enter the building. Without a word they turned aside from the steps and followed the little path to the graves in the rude enclosure beneath the pines, where the sunshine fell only in patches here and there.

That night after supper Mr. Matthews went down into the Hollow to see the shepherd. "It's goin' to be mighty hard on Mollie and me a leavin' the old place up yonder," said the big man, when he had told of his unsuccessful trip. "It won't matter so much to the boy, 'cause he's young yet, but we've worked hard, Mr. Howitt, for that home--Mollie and me has. She's up there now a sittin' on the porch and a livin' it all over again, like she does when there ain't no one around, with her face turned toward them pines west of the house. It's mighty nigh a breakin' her heart just to think of leavin', but she'll hide it all from me when I go up there, thinkin' not to worry me--as if I didn't know. An' it's goin to be mighty hard to part with you, too, Mr. Howitt. I don't reckon you'll ever know, sir, how much you done for us; for me most of all."

The shepherd made as if to interrupt, but the big man continued; "Don't you suppose we can see, sir, how you've made over the whole neighborhood. There ain't a family for ten miles that don't come to you when they're in trouble. An' there's Sammy Lane a readin', an' talkin' just about the same as you do yourself, fit to hold up her end with anybody what's got education, and Jim himself's changed something wonderful. Same old Jim in lots of ways, but something more, somehow, though I can't tell it. Then there's my boy, Grant. I know right well what he'd been if it wasn't for you to show him what the best kind of a man's like. He'd a sure never knowed it from me. I don't mean as he'd a ever been a bad man like Wash Gibbs, or a no account triflin' one, like them Thompsons, but he couldn't never a been what he is now, through and through, if he hadn't a known you. There's a heap more, too, all over the country that you've talked to a Sunday, when the parson wasn't here. As for me, you--you sure been a God's blessin' to me and Mollie, Mr. Howitt."

Again the shepherd moved uneasily, as if to protest, but his big friend made a gesture of silence; "Let me say it while I got a chance, Dad." And the other bowed his head while Old Matt continued; "I can't tell how it is, an' I don't reckon you'd understand any way, but stayin' as you have after our talk that first night you come, an' livin' down here on this spot alone, after what you know, it's--it's just like I was a little kid, an' you was a standin' big and strong like between me an' a great blackness that was somethin' awful. I reckon it looks foolish, me a talkin' this way. Maybe it's because I'm gettin' old, but anyhow I wanted you to know."

The shepherd raised his head and his face was aglow with a glad triumphant light, while his deep voice was full of meaning as he said gently, "It has been more to me, too, than you think, Mr. Matthews. I ought to tell you--I--I will tell you--" he checked himself and added, "some day." Then he changed the topic quickly.

"Are you sure there is no one who can help you over this hard time? Is there no way?"

The mountaineer shook his head. "I've gone over it all again an' again. Williams at the bank is the only man I know who had the money, an' he's done for now by this robbery. You see I can't go to strangers, Dad; I ain't got nothin' left for security."

"But, could you not sell the sheep for enough to save the homestead?"

"Who could buy? or who would buy, if they could, in this country, without a bit of feed? And then look at 'em, they're so poor an' weak, now, they couldn't stand the drivin' to the shippin' place. They'd die all along the road. They're just skin an' bones, Dad; ain't no butcher would pay freight on 'em, even."

Mr. Howitt sat with knitted brow, staring into the shadows. Then he said slowly, "There is that old mine. If this man Dewey were only here, do you suppose--?"

Again the mountaineer shook his head. "Colonel Dewey would be a mighty old man now, Dad, even if he were livin.' 'Tain't likely he'll ever come back, nor tain't likely the mine will ever be found without him. I studied all that out on the way home."

As he finished speaking, he rose to go, and the dog, springing up, dashed out of the cabin and across the clearing toward the bluff by the corral, barking furiously.

The two men looked at each other. "A rabbit," said Mr. Howitt. But they both knew that the well trained shepherd dog never tracked a rabbit, and Old Matt's face was white when he mounted to ride away up the trail.

Long the shepherd stood in the doorway looking out into the night, listening to the voices of the wilderness. In his life in the hills he had found a little brightness, while in the old mountaineer's words that evening, he had glimpsed a future happiness, of which he had scarcely dared to dream. With the single exception of that one wild night, his life had been an unbroken calm. Now he was to leave it all. And for what?

He seemed to hear the rush and roar of the world beyond the ridges, as one in a quiet harbor hears outside the thunder of the stormy sea. He shuddered. The gloom and mystery of it all crept into his heart. He was so alone. But it was not the wilderness that made him shudder. It was the thought of the great, mad, cruel world that raged beyond the hills; that, and something else.

The dog growled again and faced threateningly toward the cliff. "What is it, Brave?" The only answer was an uneasy whine as the animal crouched close to the man's feet. The shepherd peered into the darkness in the direction of the ruined cabin. "God," he whispered, "how can I leave this place?"

He turned back into the house, closed and barred the door. With the manner of one making a resolution after a hard struggle, he took writing material from the top shelf of the cupboard, and, seating himself at the table, began to write. The hours slipped by, and page after page, closely written, came from the shepherd's pen, while, as he wrote, the man's face grew worn and haggard. It was as though he lifted again the burden he had learned to lay aside. At last it was finished. Placing the sheets in an envelope, he wrote the address with trembling hand.

While Mr. Howitt was writing his letter at the ranch, and Old Matt was tossing sleeplessly on his bed in the big log house, a horseman rode slowly down from the Compton Ridge road. Stopping at the creek to water, he pushed on up the mountain toward the Lane cabin. The horse walked with low hung head and lagging feet; the man slouched half asleep in the saddle. It was Jim Lane.