Chapter III. The Voice from Out the Mists.
 

While Young Matt was gone to the corral in the valley to see that the sheep were safely folded for the night, and the two women were busy in the house with their after-supper work, Mr. Matthews and his guest sat on the front porch.

"My name is Howitt, Daniel Howitt," the man said in answer to the host's question. But, as he spoke, there was in his manner a touch of embarrassment, and he continued quickly as if to prevent further question, "You have two remarkable children, sir; that boy is the finest specimen of manhood I have ever seen, and the girl is remarkable--remarkable, sir. You will pardon me, I am sure, but I am an enthusiastic lover of my kind, and I certainly have never seen such a pair."

The grim face of the elder Matthews showed both pleasure and amusement. "You're mistaken, Mister; the boy's mine alright, an' he's all that you say, an' more, I reckon. I doubt if there's a man in the hills can match him to-day; not excepting Wash Gibbs; an' he's a mighty good boy, too. But the girl is a daughter of a neighbor, and no kin at all."

"Indeed!" exclaimed the other, "you have only one child then?"

The amused smile left the face of the old mountaineer, as he answered slowly, "There was six boys, sir; this one, Grant, is the youngest. The others lie over there." He pointed with his pipe to where a clump of pines, not far from the house, showed dark and tall, against the last red glow in the sky.

The stranger glanced at the big man's face in quick sympathy. "I had only two; a boy and a girl," he said softly. "The girl and her mother have been gone these twenty years. The boy grew to be a man, and now he has left me." The deep voice faltered. "Pardon me, sir, for speaking of this, but my lad was so like your boy there. He was all I had, and now--now--I am very lonely, sir."

There is a bond of fellowship in sorrow that knows no conventionalities. As the two men sat in the hush of the coming night, their faces turned toward the somber group of trees, they felt strongly drawn to one another.

The mountaineer's companion spoke again half to himself; "I wish that my dear ones had a resting place like that. In the crowded city cemetery the ground is always shaken by the tramping of funeral professions." He buried his face in his hands.

For some time the stranger sat thus, while his host spoke no word. Then lifting his head, the man looked away over the ridges just touched with the lingering light, and the valley below wrapped in the shadowy mists. "I came away from it all because they said I must, and because I was hungry for this." He waved his hand toward the glowing sky and the forest clad hills. "This is good for me; it somehow seems to help me know how big God is. One could find peace here--surely, sir, one could find it here--peace and strength."

The mountaineer puffed hard at his pipe for a while, then said gruffly, "Seems that way, Mister, to them that don't know. But many's the time I've wished to God I'd never seen these here Ozarks. I used to feel like you do, but I can't no more. They 'mind me now of him that blackened my life; he used to take on powerful about the beauty of the country and all the time he was a turnin' it into a hell for them that had to stay here after he was gone."

As he spoke, anger and hatred grew dark in the giant's face, and the stranger saw the big hands clench and the huge frame grow tense with passion. Then, as if striving to be not ungracious, the woodsman said in a somewhat softer tone, "You can't see much of it, this evening, though, 'count of the mists. It'll fair up by morning, I reckon. You can see a long way from here, of a clear day, Mister."

"Yes, indeed," replied Mr. Howitt, in an odd tone. "One could see far from here, I am sure. We, who live in the cities, see but a little farther than across the street. We spend our days looking at the work of our own and our neighbors' hands. Small wonder our lives have so little of God in them, when we come in touch with so little that God has made."

"You live in the city, then, when you are at home?" asked Mr. Matthews, looking curiously at his guest.

"I did, when I had a home; I cannot say that I live anywhere now."

Old Matt leaned forward in his chair as if to speak again; then paused; someone was coming up the hill; and soon they distinguished the stalwart form of the son. Sammy coming from the house with an empty bucket met the young man at the gate, and the two went toward the spring together.

In silence the men on the porch watched the moon as she slowly pushed her way up through the leafy screen on the mountain wall. Higher and higher she climbed until her rays fell into the valley below, and the drifting mists from ridge to ridge became a sea of ghostly light. It was a weird scene, almost supernatural in its beauty.

Then from down at the spring a young girl's laugh rose clearly, and the big mountaineer said in a low tone, "Mr. Howitt, you've got education; it's easy to see that; I've always wanted to ask somebody like you, do you believe in hants? Do you reckon folks ever come back once they're dead and gone?"

The man from the city saw that his big host was terribly in earnest, and answered quietly, "No, I do not believe in such things, Mr. Matthews; but if it should be true, I do not see why we should fear the dead."

The other shook his head; "I don't know--I don't know, sir; I always said I didn't believe, but some things is mighty queer." He seemed to be shaping his thought for further speech, when again the girl's laugh rang clear along the mountain side. The young people were returning from the spring.

The mountaineer relighted his pipe, while Young Matt and Sammy seated themselves on the step, and Mrs. Matthews coming from the house joined the group.

"We've just naturally got to find somebody to stay with them sheep, Dad," said the son; "there ain't nobody there to-night, and as near as I can make out there's three ewes and their lambs missing. There ain't a bit of use in us trying to depend on Pete."

"I'll ride over on Bear Creek to-morrow, and see if I can get that fellow Buck told us about," returned the father.

"You find it hard to get help on the ranch?" inquired the stranger.

"Yes, sir, we do," answered Old Matt. "We had a good 'nough man 'till about a month ago; since then we've been gettin' along the best we could. But with some a stayin' out on the range, an' not comin' in, an' the wolves a gettin' into the corral at night, we'll lose mighty nigh all the profits this year. The worst of it is, there ain't much show to get a man; unless that one over on Bear Creek will come. I reckon, though, he'll be like the rest." He sat staring gloomily into the night.

"Is the work so difficult?" Mr. Howitt asked.

"Difficult, no; there ain't nothing to do but tendin' to the sheep. The man has to stay at the ranch of nights, though."

Mr. Howitt was wondering what staying at the ranch nights could have to do with the difficulty, when, up from the valley below, from out the darkness and the mists, came a strange sound; a sound as if someone were singing a song without words. So wild and weird was the melody; so passionately sweet the voice, it seemed impossible that the music should come from human lips. It was more as though some genie of the forest-clad hills wandered through the mists, singing as he went with the joy of his possessions.

Mrs. Matthews came close to her husband's side, and placed her hand upon his shoulder as he half rose from his chair, his pipe fallen to the floor. Young Matt rose to his feet and moved closer to the girl, who was also standing. The stranger alone kept his seat and he noted the agitation of the others in wonder.

For some moments the sound continued, now soft and low, with the sweet sadness of the wind in the pines; then clear and ringing, it echoed and reechoed along the mountain; now pleadings, as though a soul in darkness prayed a gleam of light; again rising, swelling exultingly, as in glad triumph, only to die away once more to that moaning wail, seeming at last to lose itself in the mists.

Slowly Old Matt sank back into his seat and the stranger heard him mutter, "Poor boy, poor boy." Aunt Mollie was weeping. Suddenly Sammy sprang from the steps and running down the walk to the gate sent a clear, piercing call over the valley: "O--h--h, Pete." The group on the porch listened intently. Again the girl called, and yet again: "O--h--h, Pete." But there was no answer.

"It's no use, honey," said Mrs. Matthews, breaking the silence; "it just ain't no use;" and the young girl came slowly back to the porch.