Chapter XXXIX. A Matter of Hours.

"Father--Father; can--you--can--you--forgive me?"

The man on his knees raised his head.

"Forgive you, my son? Forgive you? My dear boy, there has never been in my heart a thought but of love and sympathy. Pain there has been, I can't deny, but it has helped me to know what you have suffered. I understand it now, my boy. I understand it all, for I, too, have felt it. But when I first knew, even beneath all the hurt, I was glad--glad to know, I mean. It is a father's right to suffer with his child, my son. It hurt most, when the secret stood between us, and I could not enter into your life, but I understand that, too. I understand why you could not tell me. I, too, came away because I was not strong enough."

"I--I thought it would be easier for you never to know," said the son as he lay on the bed. "I am--sorry, now. And I am glad that you know. But I must tell you all about it just the same. I must tell you myself, you see, so that it will be all clear and straight when I--when I go." He turned his eyes to the picture on the wall.

"When you go?"

Howard laid a hand upon the gray head. "Poor father; yes, I am going. It was an accident, but it was a kindness. It will be much better that way--only--only I am sorry for you, father. I thought I could save you all this. I intended to slip quietly away without your ever knowing, but when Pete said that Dr. Coughlan was here, I could not go without--without--"

The little doctor came forward. "I am a fool, Howard, an old fool. Blast it all; no business to go poking into this; no business at all! Daniel would have sent if he had wanted me. Ought to have known. Old native can give me lessons on being a gentleman every time. Blast it all! What's wrong, Howard? Get hurt? Now I am here, might as well be useful."

"Indeed, Doctor, you did right to come. You will be such a help to father. You will help us both, just as you have always done. Will you excuse us, father, while Dr. Coughlan looks at this thing here in my side?"

The physician arranged the light so that it shone full upon the man on the bed, then carefully removed the bandages from an ugly wound in the artist's side. Dr. Coughlan looked very grave. "When did this happen, Howard?"

"I--I can't tell exactly. You see I thought at first I could get along with Pete to help, and I did, for a week, I guess. Then things--didn't go so well. Some fever, I think, for she--she came." He turned his eyes toward the picture again. "And I--I lost all track of time. It was the night of the eighteenth. Father will know."

"Two weeks," muttered the physician.

A low exclamation came from the shepherd. "It was you--you who brought the horses to the ranch that night?"

The artist smiled grimly. "The officers saw me, and thought that I was one of the men they wanted. It's alright, though." The old scholar instinctively lifted his hands and looked at them. He remembered the saddle, wet with blood.

Making a careful examination, the doctor asked more questions. When he had finished and had skilfully replaced the bandages, the wounded man asked, "What about it, Dr. Coughlan?" The kind hearted physician jerked out a volley of scientific words and phrases that meant nothing, and busied himself with his medicine case.

When his patient had taken the medicine, the doctor watched him for a few minutes, and then asked, "Feel stronger, Howard?"

The artist nodded. "Tell me the truth, now, Doctor. I know that I am going. But how long have I? Wait a minute first. Where's Pete? Come here, my boy." The lad drew near. "Father." Mr. Howitt seated himself on the bedside. "You'll be strong, father? We are ready now, Dr. Coughlan."

"Yes, tell us, David," said the shepherd, and his voice was steady.

The physician spoke, "Matter of hours, I would say. Twenty-four, perhaps; not more; not more."

"There is no possible chance, David?" asked the shepherd.

Again the little doctor took refuge behind a broadside of scientific terms before replying, "No; no possible chance."

A groan slipped from the gray bearded lips of the father. The artist turned to the picture and smiled. Pete looked wonderingly from face to face.

"Poor father," said the artist. "One thing more, Doctor; can you keep up my strength for awhile?"

"Reasonably well, reasonably well, Howard."

"I am so glad of that because there is much to do before I go. There is so much that must be done first, and I want you both to help me."