The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XXIV. What Makes a Man.
Mr. Matthews and his son finished their planting early in the afternoon and the boy set out to find old Kate and the mule colt. Those rovers had not appeared at the home place for nearly two weeks, and some one must bring them in before they forgot their home completely.
"Don't mind if I ain't back for supper, Mother," said Young Matt. "I may eat at the ranch with Dad. I ain't been down there for quite a spell now, an' I'd kind o' like to know if that panther we've been a hearin' is givin' Dad any trouble."
"Dad told me yesterday that he thought he heard old Kate's bell over on yon side of Cox's Bald," said Mr. Matthews; "I believe if I was you I'd take across Cox's, along the far side of th' ridge, around Dewey an' down into the Hollow that way. Joe Gardner was over north yesterday, an' he said he didn't see no signs on that range. I reckon you'll find 'em on Dewey somewheres about Jim Lane's, maybe. You'd better saddle a horse."
"No, I'll take it a foot. I can ride old Kate in, if I find them," replied the big fellow; and, with his rifle in the hollow of his arm, he struck out over the hills. All along the eastern slope of the ridge, that forms one side of Mutton Hollow, he searched for the missing stock, but not a sound of the bell could he hear; not a trace of the vagabonds could he find. And that was because old Kate and the little colt were standing quietly in the shade in a little glen below Sand Ridge not a quarter of a mile from the barn.
The afternoon was well on when Young Matt gave up the search, and shaped his course for the sheep ranch. He was on the farther side of Dewey, and the sun told him that there was just time enough to reach the cabin before supper.
Pushing straight up the side of the mountain, he found the narrow bench, that runs like a great cornice two-thirds of the way around the Bald Knob. The mountaineer knew that at that level, on the side opposite from where he stood, was Sammy's Lookout, and from there it was an easy road down to the sheep ranch in the valley. Also, he knew that from that rocky shelf, all along the southern side of the mountain, he would look down upon Sammy's home; and, who could tell, he might even catch a glimpse of Sammy herself. Very soon he rounded the turn of the hill, and saw far below the Lane homestead; the cabin and the barn in the little clearing looking like tiny doll houses.
Young Matt walked slowly now. The supper was forgotten. Coming to the clump of cedars just above the Old Trail where it turns the shoulder of the hill from the west, he stopped for a last look. Beyond this point, he would turn his back upon the scene that interested him so deeply.
The young man could not remember when he had not loved Sammy Lane. She seemed to have been always a part of his life. It was the season of the year when all the wild things of the forest choose their mates, and as the big fellow stood there looking down upon the home of the girl he loved, all the splendid passion of his manhood called for her. It seemed to him that the whole world was slipping away to leave him alone in a measureless universe. He almost cried aloud. It is the same instinct that prompts the panther to send his mating call ringing over the hills and through the forest, and leads the moose to issue his loud challenge.
At last Young Matt turned to go, when he heard the sound of voices. Someone was coming along the Old Trail that lay in full view on the mountain side not two hundred yards away. Instinctively the woodsman drew back into the thick foliage of the cedars.
The voices grew louder. A moment more and Sammy with Ollie Stewart appeared from around the turn of the hill. They were walking side by side and talking earnestly. The young woman had just denied the claims of her former lover, and was explaining the change in her attitude toward him; but the big fellow on the ledge above could not know that. He could not hear what they were saying. He only saw his mate, and the man who had come to take her from him.
Half crouching on the rocky shelf in the dark shadow of the cedar, the giant seemed a wild thing ready for his spring; ready and eager, yet held in check by something more powerful still than his passion. Slowly the two, following the Old Trail, passed from sight, and Young Matt stood erect. He was trembling like a frightened child. A moment longer he waited, then turned and fairly ran from the place. Leaving the ledge at the Lookout, he rushed down the mountain and through the woods as if mad, to burst in upon the shepherd, with words that were half a cry, half a groan. "He's come, Dad; he's come. I've just seen him with her."
Mr. Howitt sprang up with a startled exclamation. His face went white. He grasped the table for support. He tried to speak, but words would not come. He could only stare with frightened eyes, as though Young Matt himself were some fearful apparition.
The big fellow threw himself into a chair, and presently the shepherd managed to say in a hoarse whisper, "Tell me about it, Grant, if you can."
"I seen them up on Dewey just now, goin' down the Old Trail from Sammy's Lookout to her home. I was huntin' stock."
The old scholar leaned toward his friend, as he almost shouted, "Saw them going to Sammy's home! Saw whom, lad? Whom did you see?"
"Why--why--Sammy Lane and that--that Ollie Stewart, of course. I tell you he's come back. Come to take her away."
The reaction was almost as bad as the shock. Mr. Howitt gasped as he dropped back into his seat. He felt a hysterical impulse to laugh, to cry out. Young Matt continued; "He's come home, Dad, with all his fine clothes and city airs, and now she'll go away with him, and we won't never see her again."
As he began to put his thoughts into words, the giant got upon his feet, and walked the floor like one insane. "He shan't have her," he cried, clenching his great fists; "he shan't have her. If he was a man I could stand it, Dad. But look at him! Look at him, will you? The little white-faced, washed out runt, what is he? He ain't no man, Dad. He ain't even as much of a man as he was. And Sammy is--God! What a woman she is! You've been a tellin' me that I could be a gentleman, even if I always lived in the backwoods. But you're wrong, Dad, plumb wrong. I ain't no gentleman. I can't never be one. I'm just a man. I'm a--a savage, a damned beast, and I'm glad of it." He threw back his shaggy head, and his white teeth gleamed through his parted lips, as he spoke in tones of mad defiance.
"Dad, you say there's some things bigger'n learnin', and such, and I reckon this here's one of them. I don't care if that little whelp goes to all the schools there is, and gets to be a president or a king; I don't care if he's got all the money there is between here and hell; put him out here in the woods, face to face with life where them things don't count, and what is he? What is he, Dad? He's nothin'! plumb nothin'!"
The old shepherd waited quietly for the storm to pass. The big fellow would come to himself after a time; until then, words were useless. At last Young Matt spoke in calmer tones; "I run away, Dad. I had to. I was afraid I'd hurt him. Something inside o' me just fought to get at him, and I couldn't a held out much longer. I don't want to hurt nobody, Dad. I reckon it was a seein' 'em together that did it. It's a God's blessin' I come away when I did; it sure is." He dropped wearily into his chair again.
Then the teacher spoke, "It is always a God's blessing, lad, when a man masters the worst of himself. You are a strong man, my boy. You hardly know your strength. But you need always to remember that the stronger the man, the easier it is for him to become a beast. Your manhood depends upon this, and upon nothing else, that you conquer and control the animal side of yourself. It will be a sad moment for you, and for all of us who love you, if you ever forget. Don't you see, lad, it is this victory only that gives you the right to think of yourself as a man. Mind, I say to think of yourself, as a man. It doesn't much matter what others think of you. It is what one can honestly think of one's self that matters."
So they spent the evening together, and the big mountaineer learned to see still more deeply into the things that had come to the older man in his years of study and painful experience.
When at last Young Matt arose to say good-night, the shepherd tried to persuade him to sleep at the ranch. But he said, no, the folks at home would be looking for him, and he must go. "I'm mighty glad I come, Dad," he added; "I don't know what I'd do if it wasn't for you; go plumb hog wild, and make a fool of myself, I reckon. I don't know what a lot of us would do, either. Seems like you're a sort of shepherd to the whole neighborhood. I reckon, though, I'm 'bout the worst in the flock," he finished with a grim smile.
Mr. Howitt took his hat from the nail. "If you must go, I will walk a little way with you. I love to be out such nights as this. I often wish Pete would take me with him."
"He's out somewhere to-night, sure," replied the other, as they started. "We heard him a singin' last night." Then he stopped and asked, "Where's your gun, Dad? There's a panther somewhere on this range."
"I know," returned the shepherd; "I heard it scream last night; and I meant to go up to the house to-day for a gun. I broke the hammer of mine yesterday."
"That's bad," said Young Matt. "But come on, I'll leave mine with you until to-morrow. That fellow would sure make things lively, if he should come to see you, and catch you without a shootin' iron."
Together the two walked through the timber, until they came to where the trail that leads to the Matthews place begins to climb the low spur of the hill back of the house. Here Mr. Howitt stopped to say good-night, adding, as the young man gave him the rifle, "I don't like to take this, Grant. What if you should meet that panther between here and home?"
"Shucks!" returned the other; "you're the one that'll need it. You've got to take care of them sheep. I'll get home alright."
"Don't forget the other beast, lad. Remember what it is that makes the man."