The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XXXVII. Old Friends.
After supper Young Matt guided the stranger down the trail to the sheep ranch in Mutton Hollow.
When they reached the edge of the clearing, the mountaineer stopped. "Yonder's the cabin, sir, an' Dad is there, as you can see by the smoke. I don't reckon you'll need me any more now, an' I'll go back. We'll be mighty glad to see you on the ridge any time, sir. Any friend of Dad's is mighty welcome in this neighborhood."
"Thank you; thank you; very thoughtful; very thoughtful, indeed; fine spirit, fine. I shall see you again when Daniel and I have had it out. Blast it all; what is he doing here? Good night, young man; good-night." He started forward impetuously. Matt turned back toward home.
The dog barked as Dr. Coughlan approached the cabin, and the shepherd came to the open door. He had been washing the supper dishes. His coat was off, his shirt open at the throat, and his sleeves rolled above his elbows. "Here, Brave." The deep voice rolled across the little clearing, and the dog ran to stand by his master's side. Then, as Mr. Howitt took in the unmistakable figure of the little physician, he put out a hand to steady himself.
"Oh, it's me, Daniel; it's me. Caught you didn't I? Blast it all; might have known I would. Bound to; bound to, Daniel; been at it ever since I lost you. Visiting in Kansas City last week with my old friends, the Stewarts; young fellow there, Ollie, put me right. First part of your name, description, voice and all that; knew it was you; knew it. Didn't tell them, though; blasted reporters go wild. Didn't tell a soul, not a soul. Sarah and the girls think I am in Kansas City or Denver. Didn't tell old man Matthews, either; came near, though, very near. Blast it all; what does it mean? what does it all mean?"
In his excitement the little man spoke rapidly as he hurried toward the shepherd. When he reached the cabin, the two friends, so different, yet so alike, clasped hands.
As soon as the old scholar could speak, he said, "David, David! To think that this is really you. You of all men; you, whom I most needed."
"Huh!" grunted the other. "Look like you never needed me less. Look fit for anything, anything; ten years younger; every bit of ten years. Blast it all; what have you done to yourself? What have you done?" He looked curiously at the tanned face and rude dress of his friend. "Bless my soul, what a change! What a change! Told Matthews you were an aristocrat. He wouldn't believe it. Don't wonder. Doubt it myself, now."
The other smiled at the Doctor's amazement. "I suppose I have changed some, David. The hills have done it. Look at them!" He pointed to the encircling mountains. "See how calm and strong they are; how they lift their heads above the gloom. They are my friends and companions, David. And they have given me of their calmness and strength a little. But come in, come in; you must be very tired. How did you come?"
The doctor followed him into the cabin. "Railroad, hack, wagon, walked. Postoffice last night. Man there is a savage, blasted incorrigible savage. Mill this afternoon. Home with your friends on the ridge. Old man is a gentleman, a gentleman, sir, if God ever made one. His boy's like him. The mother, she's a real mother; made to be a mother; couldn't help it. And that young woman, with the boy's name, bless my soul, I never saw such a creature before, Daniel, never! If I had I--I--Blast it all; I wouldn't be bossed by Sarah and the girls, I wouldn't. See in that young man and woman what God meant men and women to be. Told them they ought to marry; that they owed it to the race. You know my ideas, Daniel. Think they will?"
The shepherd laughed, a laugh that was good to hear.
"What's the matter now, Daniel? What is the matter? Have I said anything wrong again? Blast it all; you know how I always do the wrong thing. Have I?"
"No, indeed, David; you are exactly right," returned Mr. Howitt. "But tell me, did you see no one else at the house? There is another member of the family."
The doctor nodded. "I saw him; Pete, you mean. Looked him over. Mr. Matthews asked me to. Sad case, very sad. Hopeless, absolutely hopeless, Daniel."
"Pete has not seemed as well as usual lately. I fear so much night roaming is not good for the boy," returned the other slowly. "But tell me, how are Sarah and the girls? Still looking after Dr. Davie, I suppose."
"Just the same; haven't changed a bit; not a bit. Jennie looks after my socks and handkerchiefs; Mary looks after my shirts and linen; Anna looks after my ties and shoes; Sue looks after my hats and coats; and Kate looks after the things I eat; and Sarah, Sarah looks after everything and everybody, same as always. Blast it all! If they'd give me a show, I'd be as good as ever; good as ever, Daniel. What can a man do; what can a man do, with an only sister and her five old maid daughters looking after him from morning until night, from morning until night, Daniel? Tell them I am a full grown man; don't do no good; no good at all. Blast it all; poor old things, just got to mother something; got to, Daniel."
While he was speaking, his eyes were dancing from one object to another in the shepherd's rude dwelling, turning for frequent quick glances to Dad himself. "You live here, you? You ought not, Daniel, you ought not. What would Sarah and the girls say? Blast it all; what do you mean by it? I ordered you away on a vacation. You disappear. Think you dead; row in the papers, mystery; I hate mystery. Blast it all; what does it mean, what does it all mean? Not fair to me, Daniel; not fair."
By this time the little man had worked himself up to an astonishing pitch of excitement; his eyes snapped; his words came like pistol shots; his ejaculations were genuine explosions. He tapped with his feet; rapped with his cane; shook his finger; and fidgeted in his chair. "We want you back, Daniel. I want you. Church will want you when they know; looking for a preacher right now. I come after you, Daniel. Blast it all, I'll tell Sarah and the girls, and they'll come after you, too. Chicago will go wild when they know that Daniel Howitt Cha--"
"Stop!" The doctor bounced out of his chair. The shepherd was trembling, and his voice shook with emotion. "Forgive me, David. But that name must never be spoken again, never. My son is dead, and that name died with him. It must be forgotten."
The physician noted his friend's agitation in amazement. "There, there, Daniel. I didn't mean to. Thought it didn't matter when we were alone. I--I--Blast it all! Tell me Daniel, what do you mean by this strange business, this very strange business?"
A look of mingled affection, regret and pain, came into the shepherd's face, as he replied, "Let me tell you the story, David, and you will understand."
When he had finished, Mr. Howitt asked gently, "Have I not done right, David? The boy is gone. It was hard, going as he did. But I am glad, now, for Old Matt would have killed him, as he would kill me yet, if he knew. Thank God, we have not also made the father a murderer. Did I not say rightly, that the old name died with Howard? Have I not done well to stay on this spot and to give my life to this people?"
"Quite right, Daniel; quite right. You always are. It's me that goes wrong; blundering, bumping, smashing into things. Blast it all! I--I don't know what to say. B--B--Blast it all!"
The hour was late when the two men finally retired for the night. Long after his heavy, regular breathing announced that the doctor was sleeping soundly, the shepherd lay wide awake, keenly sensitive to every sound that stirred in the forest. Once he arose from his bed, and stepping softly left the cabin, to stand under the stars, his face lifted to the dark summit of Old Dewey and the hills that rimmed the Hollow. And once, when the first light of day came over the ridges, he went to the bunk where his friend lay, to look thoughtfully down upon the sleeping man.
Breakfast was nearly ready when Dr. Coughlan awoke. The physician saw at once by the worn and haggard look on his friend's face that his had been a sleepless night. It was as though all the pain and trouble of the old days had returned. The little doctor muttered angrily to himself while the shepherd was gone to the spring for water. "Blast it all, I'm a fool, a meddlesome, old fool. Ought to have let well enough alone. No need to drag him back into it all again; no need. Do no good; no good at all."
When the morning meal was finished, Mr. Howitt said, "David, will you think me rude, if I leave you alone to-day? The city pavement fits one but poorly to walk these hills of mine, and you are too tired after your trip and the loss of your regular sleep to go with me this morning. Stay at the ranch and rest. If you care to read, here are a few of your favorites. Will you mind very much? I should like to be alone to-day, David."
"Right, Daniel, right. I understand. Don't say another word; not a word. Go ahead. I'm stiff and sore anyway; just suit me."
The shepherd arranged everything for his friend's comfort, putting things in readiness for his noonday meal, and showing him the spring. Then, taking his own lunch, as his custom was, he went to the corral and released the sheep. The doctor watched until the last of the flock was gone, and he could no longer hear the tinkle of the bells and the bark of the dog.