Chapter XXI. God's Gold.
 

The troubled night passed. The shepherd arose to see the sky above the eastern rim of the Hollow glowing with the first soft light of a new day. Away over Compton Ridge one last, pale star hung, caught in the upper branches of a dead pine. Not a leaf of the forest stirred. In awe the man watched the miracle of the morning, as the glowing colors touched cloud after cloud, until the whole sky was aflame, and the star was gone.

Again he seemed to hear, faint and far away, the roar and surge of the troubled sea. With face uplifted, he cried aloud, "O God, my Father, I ask thee not for the things that men deem great. I covet not wealth, nor honor, nor ease; only peace; only that I may live free from those who do not understand; only that I may in some measure make atonement; that I may win pardon. Oh, drive me not from this haven into the world again!"

"Again, again," came back from the cliff on the other side of the clearing, and, as the echo died away in the silent woods, a bush on top of the bluff stirred in the breathless air; stirred, and was still again. Somewhere up on Dewey a crow croaked hoarsely to his mate; a cow on the range bawled loudly and the sheep in the corral chorused in answer.

Re-entering the cabin, the old man quickly built a fire, then, taking the bucket, went to the spring for water. He must prepare his breakfast. Coming back with the brimming pail, he placed it on the bench and was turning to the cupboard, when he noticed on the table a small oblong package. "Mr. Matthews must have left it last night," he thought. "Strange that I did not see it before."

Picking up the package he found that it was quite heavy, and, to his amazement, saw that it was addressed to himself, in a strange, cramped printing, such letters as a child would make. He ripped open the covering and read in the same crude writing: "This stuff is for you to give to the Matthews's and Jim Lane, but don't tell anyone where you got it. And don't try to find out where it come from either, or you'll wish you hadn't. You needn't be afraid. It's good money alright." The package contained gold pieces of various denominations.

With a low exclamation, the shepherd let the parcel slip, and the money fell in a shining heap on the floor. He stood as in a dream, looking from the gold to the letter in his hand. Then, going to the door, he gazed long and searchingly in every direction. Nothing unusual met his eye. Turning back into the cabin again, he caught up the letter he had written, and stepped to the fireplace, an expression of relief upon his face. But with his hand outstretched toward the flames, he paused, the letter still in his grasp, while the expression of relief gave way to a look of fear.

"The bank," he muttered; "the robbery." The shining pieces on the floor seemed to glisten mockingly; "No, no, no," said the man. "Better the other way, and yet--" He read the letter again. "It's good money, alright; you needn't be afraid."

In his quandary, he heard a step without and looking up saw Pete in the open door.

The boy's sensitive face was aglow, as he said; "Pete's glad this morning; Pete saw the sky. Did Dad see the sky?"

Mr. Howitt nodded; then, moved by a sudden impulse, pointed to the money, and said, "Does Pete see this? It's gold, all gold."

The boy drew near with curious eyes. "Dad doesn't know where it came from," continued the shepherd. "Does Pete know?"

The youth gave a low laugh of delight; "Course Pete knows. Pete went up on Dewey this morning; 'way up to the old signal tree, and course he took me with him. The sky was all soft and silvery, an' the clouds was full, plumb full of gold, like that there." He pointed to the yellow coins on the floor. "Didn't Dad see? Some of it must o' spilled out."

"Ah, yes, that was God's gold," said the older man softly.

The lad touched his friend on the arm, and with the other hand again pointed to the glittering heap on the floor. "Pete says that there's God's gold too, and Pete he knows."

The man started and looked at the boy in wonder; "But why, why should it come to me at such a time as this?" he muttered.

"'Cause you're the Shepherd of Mutton Hollow, Pete says. Don't be scared, Dad. Pete knows. It's sure God's gold."

The shepherd turned to the fireplace and dropped the letter he had written upon the leaping flames.