Chapter XL. The Shepherd's Mission.
 

During the latter part of that night and most of the day, it rained; a fine, slow, quiet rain, with no wind to shake the wet from burdened leaf or blade. But when the old shepherd left the cave by a narrow opening on the side of the mountain, near Sammy's Lookout, the sky was clear. The mists rolled heavily over the valley, but the last of the sunlight was warm on the knobs and ridges.

The old man paused behind the rock and bushes that concealed the mouth of the underground passage. Not a hundred feet below was the Old Trail; he followed the little path with his eye until it vanished around the shoulder of Dewey. Along that way he had come into the hills. Then lifting his eyes to the far away lines of darker blue, his mind looked over the ridge to the world that is on the other side, the world from which he had fled. It all seemed very small and mean, now; it was so far--so far away.

He started as the sharp ring of a horse's iron shoe on the flint rocks came from beyond the Lookout, and, safely hidden, he saw a neighbor round the hill and pass on his way to the store on Roark. He watched, as horse and rider followed the Old Trail around the rim of the Hollow; watched, until they passed from sight in the belt of timber. Then his eyes were fixed on a fine thread of smoke that curled above the trees on the Matthews place; and, leaving the shelter of rock and bush, he walked along the Old Trail toward the big log house on the distant ridge.

Below him, on his left, Mutton Hollow lay submerged in the drifting mists, with only a faint line of light breaking now and then where Lost Creek made its way; and on the other side Compton Ridge lifted like a wooded shore from the sea. A black spot in the red west shaped itself into a crow, making his way on easy wing toward a dead tree on the top of Boulder Bald. The old shepherd walked wearily; the now familiar objects wore a strange look. It was as though he saw them for the first time, yet had seen them somewhere before, perhaps in another world. As he went his face was the face of one crushed by shame and grief, made desperate by his suffering.

Supper was just over and Young Matt was on the porch when Mr. Howitt entered the gate. The young fellow greeted his old friend, and called back into the house, "Here's Dad, Father." As Mr. Matthews came out, Aunt Mollie and Sammy appeared in the doorway. How like it all was to that other evening.

The mountaineer and the shepherd sat on the front porch, while Young Matt brought the big sorrel and the brown pony to the gate, and with Sammy rode away. They were going to the Postoffice at the Forks. "Ain't had no news for a week," said Aunt Mollie, as she brought her chair to join the two men. "And besides, Sammy needs the ride. There's goin' to be a moon, so it'll be light by the time they start home."

The sound of the horses' feet and the voices of the young people died away in the gray woods. The dusk thickened in the valley below, and, as the light in the west went out, the three friends saw the clump of pines etched black and sharp against the blood red background of the sky.

Old Matt spoke, "Reckon everything's alright at the ranch, Dad. How's the little doctor? You ought to brung him up with you." He watched the shepherd's face curiously from under his heavy brows, as he pulled at his cob pipe.

"Tired out trampin' over these hills, I reckon," ventured Aunt Mollie. Mr. Howitt tried to answer with some commonplace, but his friends could not but note his confusion. Mrs. Matthews continued, "I guess you'll be a leavin' us pretty soon, now. Well, I ain't a blamin' you; and you've sure been a God's blessin' to us here in the woods. I don't reckon we're much 'long 'side the fine friends you've got back where you come from in the city; and we--we can't do nothin' for you, but--but--" The good soul could say no more.

"We've often wondered, sir," added Old Matt, "how you've stood it here, an educated man like you. I reckon, though, there's somethin' deep under it all, keepin' you up; somethin' that ignorant folks, without no education, like us, can't understand."

The old scholar could have cried aloud, but he was forced to sit dumb while the other continued, "You're goin' won't make no difference, though, with what you've done. This neighborhood won't never go back to what it was before you come. It can't with all you've taught us, and with Sammy stayin' here to keep it up. It'll be mighty hard, though, to have you go; it sure will, Mr. Howitt."

Looking up, the shepherd said quietly, "I expect to live here until the end if you will let me. But I fear you will not want me to stay when you know what I've come to tell you this evening."

The mountaineer straightened his huge form as he returned, "Dad, there ain't nothin' on earth or in hell could change what we think of you, and we don't want to hear nothin' about you that you don't like to tell us. We ain't a carin' what sent you to the hills. We're takin' you for what you are. And there ain't nothin' can change that."

"Not even if it should be the grave under the pine yonder?" asked the other in a low voice.

Old Matt looked at him in a half frightened way, as though, without knowing why, he feared what the shepherd would say next. Mr. Howitt felt the look and hesitated. He was like one on a desperate mission in the heart of an enemy's country, feeling his way. Was the strong man's passion really tame? Or was his fury only sleeping, waiting to destroy the one who should wake it? Who could tell?

The old scholar looked away to Dewey Bald for strength. "Mr. Matthews," he said, "you once told me a story. It was here on this porch when I first came to you. It was a sad tale of a great crime. To-night I know the other aide of that story. I've come to tell you."

At the strange words, Aunt Mollie's face turned as white as her apron. Old Matt grasped the arms of his chair, as though he would crush the wood, as he said shortly, "Go on."

At the tone of his voice, the old shepherd's heart sank.