The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XLV. Some Years Later.
A wandering artist, searching for new fields, found his way into the Ozark country. One day, as he painted in the hills, a flock of sheep came over the ridge through a low gap, and worked slowly along the mountain side. A few moments later, the worker at the easel lifted his eyes from the canvas to find himself regarded by an old man in the dress of a native.
"Hello, uncle. Fine day," said the artist shortly, his eyes again upon his picture.
"The God of these hills gives us many such, young sir, and all His days are good."
The painter's hand paused between palette and canvas, and his face was turned toward the speaker in wonder. Every word was perfect in accent of the highest culture, and the deep musical tone of the voice was remarkable in one with the speaker's snowy hair and beard. The young man arose to his feet. "I beg your pardon, sir. I thought--" He hesitated, as he again took in the rude dress of the other. The brown eyes, under their white shaggy brows, lighted with good nature. "You mean, young sir, that you did not think. 'Tis the privilege of youth; make the most of it. Very soon old age will rob you of your freedom, and force you to think, whether you will or no. Your greeting under the circumstance is surely excusable. It is I who should beg pardon, for I have interrupted your study, and I have no excuse; neither my youth nor my occupation will plead for me."
The charm of his voice and manner were irresistible. The painter stepped forward with outstretched hand, "Indeed, sir; I am delighted to meet you. I am here for the summer from Chicago. My camp is over there."
The other grasped the offered hand cordially, "I am Daniel Howitt, young sir; from the sheep ranch in Mutton Hollow. Dad Howitt, the people call me. So you see you were not far wrong when you hailed me 'Uncle.' Uncle and Dad are 'sure close kin,' as Preachin' Bill would say."
Both men laughed, and the painter offered his folding easel chair. "Thank you, no. Here is a couch to which I am more accustomed. I will rest here, if you please." The old man stretched himself upon the grassy slope. "Do you like my hills?" he asked. "But I am sure you do," he added, as his eye dwelt fondly upon the landscape.
"Ah, you are the owner of this land, then? I was wondering who--"
"No, no, young sir," the old man interrupted, laughing again. "Others pay the taxes; these hills belong to me only as they belong to all who have the grace to love them. They will give you great treasure, that you may give again to others, who have not your good strength to escape from the things that men make and do in the restless world over there. One of your noble craft could scarcely fail to find the good things God has written on this page of His great book. Your brothers need the truths that you will read here; unless the world has greatly changed."
"You are not then a native of this country?"
"I was a native of that world yonder, young sir. Before your day, they knew me; but long since, they have forgotten. When I died there, I was born again in these mountains. And so," he finished with a smile, "I am, as you see, a native. It is long now since I met one from beyond the ridges. I will not likely meet another."
"I wonder that others have not discovered the real beauty of the Ozarks," remarked the painter.
The old shepherd answered softly, "One did." Then rising to his feet and pointing to Roark valley, he said, "Before many years a railroad will find its way yonder. Then many will come, and the beautiful hills that have been my strength and peace will become the haunt of careless idlers and a place of revelry. I am glad that I shall not be here. But I must not keep you longer from your duties."
"I shall see you again, shall I not?" The painter was loath to let him go.
"More often than will be good for your picture, I fear. You must work hard, young sir, while the book of God is still open, and God's message is easily read. When the outside world comes, men will turn the page, and you may lose the place."
After that they met often, and one day the old man led the artist to where a big house looked down upon a ridge encircled valley. Though built of logs without, the house within was finished and furnished in excellent taste. To his surprise, the painter found one room lined with shelves, and upon the shelves the best things that men have written for their fellows. In another room was a piano. The floors were covered with rugs. Draperies and hangings softened the atmosphere; and the walls were hung with pictures; not many, but good and true; pictures that had power over those who looked upon them. The largest painting hung in the library and was veiled.
"My daughter, Mrs. Matthews," said the old shepherd, as he presented the stranger to the mistress of the house. In all his search for beauty, never had the artist looked upon such a form and such a face. It was a marvelous blending of the physical with the intellectual and spiritual. A firm step was heard on the porch. "My husband," said the lady. And the stranger rose to greet--the woman's mate. The children of this father and mother were like them; or, as the visitor afterwards said in his extravagant way, "like young gods for beauty and strength."
The next summer the painter went again to the Ozarks. Even as he was greeted by the strong master of the hills and his charming wife, there fell upon his ears a dull report as of distant cannon; then another, and another. They led him across the yard, and there to the north on the other side of Roark, men were tearing up the mountain to make way for the railroad. As they looked, another blast sent the rocks flying, while the sound rolled and echoed through the peaceful hills.
The artist turned to his friends with questioning eyes; "Mr. Howitt said it would come. Is he--is he well?"
Mrs. Matthews answered softly, "Dad left us while the surveyors were at work. He sleeps yonder." She pointed to Dewey Bald.
Then they went into the library, where the large picture was unveiled. When the artist saw it, he exclaimed, "Mad Howard's lost masterpiece! How--where did you find it?"
"It was Father Howitt's request that I tell you the story," Sammy replied.
And then she told the artist a part of that which I have set down here.