Chapter XXXVI. Another Stranger.
 

Mr. Matthews and his son first heard of the stranger through Lou Gordon, the mail carrier, who stopped at the mill on his way to Flag with the week's mail.

The native rode close to the shed, and waited until the saw had shrieked its way through the log of oak, and the carriage had rattled back to first position. Then with the dignity belonging to one of his station, as a government officer, he relieved his overcharged mouth of an astonishing quantity of tobacco, and drawled, "Howdy, men."

"Howdy, Lou," returned Young Matt from the engine, and Old Matt from the saw.

"Reckon them boards is fer a floor in Joe Gardner's new cabin?"

"Yes," returned Old Matt; "we ought to got 'em out last week, but seems like we couldn't get at it with the buryin' an' all."

"'Pears like you all 'r gettin' mighty proud in this neighborhood. Puncheon floors used t' be good enough fer anybody t' dance on. Be a buildin' board houses next, I reckon."

Mr. Matthews laughed, "Bring your logs over to Fall Creek when you get ready to build, Lou; we'll sure do you right."

The representative of the government recharged his mouth. "'Lowed as how I would," he returned. "I ain't one o' this here kind that don't want t' see no changes. Gov'ment's all th' time makin' 'provements. Inspector 'lowed last trip we'd sure be a gettin' mail twice a week at Flag next summer. This here's sure bound t' be a big country some day.

"Talkin' 'bout new fangled things, though, men! I seed the blamdest sight las' night that ever was in these woods, I reckon. I gonies! Hit was a plumb wonder!" Kicking one foot from the wooden stirrup and hitching sideways in the saddle, he prepared for an effort.

"Little feller, he is. Ain't as tall as Preachin' Bill even, an' fat! I gonies! he's fat as a possum 'n 'simmon time. He don't walk, can't; just naturally waddles on them little duck legs o' hisn. An' he's got th' prettiest little ol' face; all red an' white, an' as round's a walnut; an' a fringe of th' whitest hair you ever seed. An' clothes! Say, men." In the pause the speaker deliberately relieved his overcharged mouth. The two in the mill waited breathlessly. "Long tailed coat, stove pipe hat, an' cane with a gold head as big as a 'tater. 'Fo' God, men, there ain't been ary such a sight within a thousand miles of these here hills ever. An' doin's! My Lord, a'mighty!"

The thin form of the native doubled up as he broke into a laugh that echoed and re-echoed through the little valley, ending in a wild, "Whoop-e-e-e. Say! When he got out of th' hack last night at th' Forks, Uncle Ike he catched sight o' him an' says, says he t' me, 'Ba thundas! Lou, looky there! Talk 'bout prosperity. I'm dummed if there ain't ol' Santa Claus a comin' t' th' Forks in th' summa time. 'Ba thundas! What!'

"An' when Santa come in, he--he wanted--Now what d' you reckon he wanted? A bath! Yes, sir-e-e. Dad burn me, 'f he didn't. A bath! Whoop-e-e, you ought t' seen Uncle Ike! He told him, 'Ba thundas!' he could give him a bite to eat an' a place to sleep, but he'd be pisined bit by rattlers, clawed by wild cats, chawed by the hogs, et by buzzards, an' everlastin'ly damned 'fore he'd tote water 'nough fer anybody t' swim in. 'Ba thundas! What!'

"What's he doin' here?" asked Mr. Matthews, when the mountaineer had recovered from another explosion.

Lou shook his head, as he straightened himself in the saddle. "Blame me 'f I kin tell. Jest wouldn't tell 't all last night. Wanted a bath. Called Uncle Ike some new fangled kind of a savage, an' th' old man 'lowed he'd show him. He'd sure have him persecuted fer 'sultin' a gov'ment servant when th' inspector come around. Yes he did. Oh, thar was doin's at the Forks last night!"

Again the mail carrier's laugh echoed through the woods.

"Well, I must mosey along. He warn't up this mornin' when I left. Reckon he'll show up 'round here sometime 'fore sun down. Him an' Uncle Ike won't hitch worth a cent an' he'll be huntin' prouder folks. I done told th' old man he'd better herd him fer a spell, fer if he was t' get loose in these woods, there wouldn't be nary deer er bear left come Thanksgivin' time. Uncle Ike said 'Ba thundas!' he'd let me know that he warn't runnin' no dummed asylum. He 'lowed he was postmaster, 'Ba thundas!' an' had all he could do t' keep th' dad burned gov'ment straight."

Late that afternoon Lou's prophecy was fulfilled. A wagon going down the Creek with a load of supplies for the distillery stopped at the mill shed and the stranger began climbing carefully down over the wheels. Budd Wilson on his high seat winked and nodded at Mr. Matthews and his son, as though it was the greatest joke of the season.

"Hold those horses, driver. Hold them tight; tight, sir."

"Got 'em, Mister," responded Budd promptly. The mules stood with drooping heads and sleepy eyes, the lines under their feet.

The gentleman was feeling carefully about the hub of the wheel with a foot that, stretch as he might, could not touch it by a good six inches.

"That's right, man, right," he puffed. "Hold them tight; tight. Start now, break a leg sure, sure. Then what would Sarah and the girls do? Oh, blast it all, where is that step? Can't stay here all day. Bring a ladder. Bring a high chair, a table, a box, a big box, a--heh--heh--Look out, I say, look out! Blast it all, what do you mean?" This last was called forth by Young Matt lifting the little man bodily to the ground, as an ordinary man would lift a child.

To look up at the young giant, the stranger tipped back his head, until his shining silk hat was in danger of falling in the dirt. "Bless my soul, what a specimen! What a specimen!" Then with a twinkle in his eye, "Which one of the boys are you, anyway?"

At this the three mountaineers roared with laughter. With his dumpy figure in the long coat, and his round face under the tall hat, the little man was irresistible. He fairly shone with good humor; his cheeks were polished like big red apples; his white hair had the luster of silver; his blue eyes twinkled; his silk hat glistened; his gold watch guard sparkled; his patent leathers glistened; and the cane with the big gold head gleamed in the sunlight.

"That's him, Doc," called the driver. "That's the feller what wallered Wash Gibbs like I was a tellin' ye. Strongest man in the hills he is. Dad burn me if I believe he knows how strong he is."

"Doc--Doc--Dad burned--Doc," muttered the stranger. "What would Sarah and the girls say!" He waddled to the wagon, and reached up one fat hand with a half dollar to Budd, "Here, driver, here. Get cigars with that; cigars, mind you, or candy. I stay here. Mind you don't get anything to drink; nothing to drink, I say."

Budd gathered up the reins and woke the sleepy mules with a vigorous jerk. "Nary a drink, Doc; nary a drink. Thank you kindly all the same. Got t' mosey 'long t' th' still now; ought t' o' been there hour ago. 'f I can do anything fer you, jest le' me know. I live over on Sow Coon Gap, when I'm 't home. Come over an' visit with me. Young Matt there'll guide you."

As he watched the wagon down the valley, the stranger mused. "Doc--Doc--huh. Quite sure that fellow will buy a drink; quite sure."

When the wagon had disappeared, he turned to Mr. Matthews and his son; "According to that fellow, I am not far from a sheep ranch kept by a Mr. Howitt. That's it, Mr. Daniel Howitt; fine looking man, fine; brown eyes; great voice; gentleman, sir, gentleman, if he is keeping sheep in this wilderness. Blast it all, just like him, just like him; always keeping somebody's sheep; born to be a shepherd; born to be. Know him?"

At mention of Mr. Howitt's name, Young Matt had looked at his father quickly. When the stranger paused, he answered, "Yes, sir. We know Dad Howitt. Is he a friend of yourn?"

"Dad--Dad Howitt. Doc and Dad. Well, what would Sarah and the girls say? Friend of mine? Young man Daniel and David, I am David; Daniel and David lay on the same blanket when they were babies; played in the same alley; school together same classes; colleged together; next door neighbors. Know him! Blast it all, where is this sheep place?"

Again the two woodsmen exchanged glances. The elder Matthews spoke, "It ain't so far from here, sir. The ranch belongs to me and my son. But Mr. Howitt will be out on the hills somewhere with the sheep now. You'd better go home with us and have supper, and the boy will take you down this evenin'."

"Well, now, that's kind, sir; very kind, indeed. Man at the Postoffice is a savage, sir; blasted, old incorrigible savage. My name is Coughlan; Dr. David Coughlan, of Chicago; practicing physician for forty years; don't do anything now; not much, that is. Sarah and the girls won't let me. Your name, sir?"

"Grant Matthews. My boy there has the same. We're mighty glad to meet any friend of Dad's, I can tell you. He's sure been a God's blessin' to this neighborhood."

Soon they started homeward, Young Matt going ahead to do the chores, and to tell his mother of their coming guest, while Mr. Matthews followed more slowly with the doctor. Shortening his stride to conform to the slow pace of the smaller man, the mountaineer told his guest about the shepherd; how he had come to them; of his life; and how he had won the hearts of the people. When he told how Mr. Howitt had educated Sammy, buying her books himself from his meager wages, the doctor interrupted in his quick way, "Just like him! just like him. Always giving away everything he earned. Made others give, too. Blast it all, he's cost me thousands of dollars, thousands of dollars, treating patients of his that never paid a cent; not a cent, sir. Proud, though; proud as Lucifer. Fine old, family; finest in the country, sir. Right to be proud, right to be."

Old Matt scowled as he returned coldly, "He sure don't seem that way to us, Mister. He's as common as an old shoe." And then the mountaineer told how his son loved the shepherd, and tried to explain what the old scholar's friendship had meant to them.

The stranger ejaculated, "Same old thing; same old trick. Did me that way; does everybody that way. Same old Daniel. Proud, though; can't help it; can't help it."

The big man answered with still more warmth, "You ought to hear how he talks to us folks when we have meetin's at the Cove school house. He's as good as any preacher you ever heard; except that he don't put on as much, maybe. Why, sir, when we buried Jim Lane week before last, everybody 'lowed he done as well as a regular parson."

At this Dr. Coughlan stopped short and leaned against a convenient tree for support, looking up at his big host, with merriment he could not hide; "Parson, parson! Daniel Howitt talk as good as a parson! Blast it all! Dan is one of the biggest D. D.'s in the United States; as good as a parson, I should think so! Why, man, he's my pastor; my pastor. Biggest church, greatest crowds in the city. Well what would Sarah and the girls say!" He stood there gasping and shaking with laughter, until Old Matt, finding the ridiculous side of the situation, joined in with a guffaw that fairly drowned the sound of the little man's merriment.

When they finally moved on again, the Doctor said, "And you never knew? The papers were always full, always. His real name is--"

"Stop!" Old Matt spoke so suddenly and in such a tone that the other jumped in alarm. "I ain't a meanin' no harm, Doc; but you oughtn't to tell his name, and--anyway I don't want to know. Preacher or no preacher, he's a man, he is, and that's what counts in this here country. If Dad had wanted us to know about himself, I reckon he'd a told us, and I don't want to hear it until he's ready."

The Doctor stopped short again, "Right, sir; right. Daniel has his reasons, of course. I forgot. That savage at the Postoffice tried to interrogate me; tried to draw me. I was close; on guard you see. Fellow in the wagon tried; still on guard. You caught me. Blast it all, I like you! Fine specimen that boy of yours; fine!"

When they reached the top of the ridge the stranger looked over the hills with exclamations of delight, "Grand, sir; grand! Wish Sarah and the girls could see. Don't wonder Daniel staid. That Hollow down there you say; way down there? Mutton--Mutton Hollow? Daniel lives there? Blast it all; come on, man; come on."

As they drew near the house, Pete came slowly up the Old Trail and met them at the gate.