The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter V. "Jest Nobody."
After the midday meal, while walking about the place, Mr. Howitt found a well worn path; it led him to the group of pines not far from the house, where five rough head stones marked the five mounds placed side by side. A little apart from these was another mound, alone.
Beneath the pines the needles made a carpet, firm and smooth, figured by the wild woodbine that clambered over the graves; moss had gathered on the head stones, and the wind, in the dark branches above, moaned ceaselessly. About the little plot of ground a rustic fence of poles was built, and the path led to a stile by which one might enter the enclosure.
The stranger seated himself upon the rude steps. Below and far away he saw the low hills, rolling ridge on ridge like the waves of a great sea, until in the blue distance they were so lost in the sky that he could not say which was mountain and which was cloud. His poet heart was stirred at sight of the vast reaches of the forest all shifting light and shadows; the cool depths of the near-by woods with the sunlight filtering through the leafy arches in streaks and patches of gold on green; and the wide, wide sky with fleets of cloud ships sailing to unseen ports below the hills.
The man sat very still, and as he looked the worn face changed; once, as if at some pleasing memory, he smiled. A gray squirrel with bright eyes full of curious regard peeped over the limb of an oak; a red bird hopping from bush to bush whistled to his mate; and a bob-white's quick call came from a nearby thicket.
The dreamer was aroused at last by the musical tinkle of a bell. He turned his face toward the sound, but could see nothing. The bell was coming nearer; it came nearer still. Then he saw here and there through the trees small, moving patches of white; an old ewe followed by two lambs came from behind a clump of bushes, and the moving patches of white shaped themselves into other sheep feeding in the timber.
Mr. Howitt sat quite still, and, while the old ewe paused to look at him, the lambs took advantage of the opportunity, until their mother was satisfied with her inspection, and by moving on, upset them. Soon the whole flock surrounded him, and, after the first lingering look of inquiry, paid no heed to his presence.
Then from somewhere among the trees came the quick, low bark of a dog. The man looked carefully in every direction; he could see nothing but the sheep, yet he felt himself observed. Again came the short bark; and this time a voice--a girl's voice, Mr. Howitt thought--said, "It's alright, Brave; go on, brother." And from behind a big rock not far away a shepherd dog appeared, followed by a youth of some fifteen years.
He was a lightly built boy; a bit tall for his age, perhaps, but perfectly erect; and his every movement was one of indescribable grace, while he managed, somehow, to wear his rough backwoods garments with an air of distinction as remarkable as it was charming. The face was finely molded, almost girlish, with the large gray eyes, and its frame of yellow, golden hair. It was a sad face when in repose, yet wonderfully responsive to every passing thought and mood. But the eyes, with their strange expression, and shifting light, proclaimed the lad's mental condition.
As the boy came forward in a shy, hesitating way, an expression of amazement and wonder crept into the stranger's face; he left his seat and started forward. "Howard," he said; "Howard."
"That ain't his name, Mister; his name's Pete," returned the youth, in low, soft tones.
In the voice and manner of the lad, no less than in his face and eyes, Mr. Howitt read his story. Unconsciously he echoed the words of Mr. Matthews, "Poor Pete."
The dog lifted his head and looked into the man's face, while his tail wagged a joyful greeting, and, as the man stooped to pat the animal and speak a few kind words, a beautiful smile broke over the delicate features of the youth. Throwing himself upon the ground, he cried, "Come here, Brave"; and taking the dog's face between his hands, said in confidential tones, ignoring Mr. Howitt's presence, "He's a good man, ain't he, brother?" The dog answered with wagging tail. "We sure like him, don't we?" The dog gave a low bark. "Listen, Brave, listen." He lifted his face to the tree tops, then turned his ear to the ground, while the dog, too, seemed to hearken. Again that strange smile illuminated his face; "Yes, yes, Brave, we sure like him. And the tree things like him, too, brother; and the flowers, the little flower things that know everything; they're all a singin' to Pete 'cause he's come. Did you see the flower things in his eyes, and hear the tree things a talkin' in his voice, Brave? And see, brother, the sheep like him too!" Pointing toward the stranger, he laughed aloud. The old ewe had come quite close to the man, and one of the lambs was nibbling at his trousers' leg.
Mr. Howitt seated himself on the stile again, and the dog, released by the youth, came to lie down at his feet; while the boy seemed to forget his companions, and appeared to be listening to voices unheard by them, now and then nodding his head and moving his lips in answer.
The old man looked long and thoughtfully at the youth, his own face revealing a troubled mind. This then was Pete, Poor Pete. "Howard," whispered the man; "the perfect image;" then again he said, half aloud, "Howard."
The boy turned his face and smiled; "That ain't his name, Mister; his name's Pete. Pete seen you yesterday over on Dewey, and Pete he heard the big hills and the woods a singin' when you talked. But Jed he didn't hear. Jed he don't hear nothin' but himself; he can't. But Pete he heard and all Pete's people, too. And the gray mist things come out and danced along the mountain, 'cause they was so glad you come. And Pete went with you along the Old Trail. Course, though, you didn't know. Do you like Pete's people, Mister?" He waved his hands to include the forest, the mountains and the sky; and there was a note of anxiety in the sweet voice as he asked again: "Do you like Pete's friends?"
"Yes, indeed, I like your friends," replied Mr. Howitt, heartily; "and I would like to be your friend too, if you will let me. What is your other name?"
The boy shook his head; "Not me; not me;" he said; "do you like Pete?"
The man was puzzled. "Are you not Pete?" he asked.
The delicate face grew sad: "No, no, no," he said in a low moaning tone; "I'm not Pete; Pete, he lives in here;" he touched himself on the breast. "I am--I am--" A look of hopeless bewilderment crept into his eyes; "I don't know who I am; I'm jest nobody. Nobody can't have no name, can he?" He stood with downcast head; then suddenly he raised his face and the shadows lifted, as he said, "But Pete he knows, Mister, ask Pete."
A sudden thought came to Mr. Howitt. "Who is your father, my boy?"
Instantly the brightness vanished; again the words were a puzzled moan; "I ain't got no father, Mister; I ain't me; nobody can't have no father, can he?"
The other spoke quickly; "But Pete had a father; who was Pete's father?" Instantly the gloom was gone and the face was bright again. "Sure, Mister, Pete's got a father; don't you know? Everybody knows that. Look!" He pointed upward to a break in the trees, to a large cumulus cloud that had assumed a fantastic shape. "He lives in them white hills, up there. See him, Mister? Sometimes he takes Pete with him up through the sky, and course I go along. We sail, and sail, and sail, with the big bird things up there, while the sky things sing; and sometimes we play with the cloud things, all day in them white hills. Pete says he'll take me away up there where the star things live, some day, and we won't never come back again; and I won't be nobody no more; and Aunt Mollie says she reckons Pete knows. 'Course, I'd hate mighty much to go away from Uncle Matt and Aunt Mollie and Matt and Sammy, 'cause they're mighty good to me; but I jest got to go where Pete goes, you see, 'cause I ain't nobody, and nobody can't be nothin', can he?"
The stranger was fascinated by the wonderful charm of the boy's manner and words. As the lad's sensitive face glowed or was clouded by each wayward thought, and the music of his sweet voice rose and fell, Mr. Howitt told himself that one might easily fancy the child some wandering spirit of the woods and hills. Aloud, he asked, "Has Pete a mother, too?"
The youth nodded toward the big pine that grew to one side of the group, and, lowering his voice, replied, "That's Pete's mother."
Mr. Howitt pointed to the grave; "You mean she sleeps there?"
"No, no, not there; there!" He pointed up to the big tree, itself. "She never sleeps; don't you hear her?" He paused. The wind moaned through the branches of the pine. Drawing closer to the stranger's side, the boy whispered, "She always talks that a way; always, and it makes Pete feel bad. She wants somebody. Hear her callin', callin', callin'? He'll sure come some day, Mister; he sure will. Say, do you know where he is?"
The stranger, startled, drew back; "No, no, my boy, certainly not; what do you mean; who are you?"
Like the moaning of the pines came the reply, "Nothin', Mister, nobody can't mean nothin', can they? I'm jest nobody. But Pete lives in here; ask Pete."
"Is Pete watching the sheep?" asked Mr. Howitt, anxious to divert the boy's mind to other channels.
"Yes, we're a tendin' 'em now; but they can't trust us, you know; when they call Pete, he just goes, and course I've got to go 'long."
"Who is it calls Pete?"
"Why, they, don't you know? I 'lowed you knowed about things. They called Pete last night. The moonlight things was out, and all the shadow things; didn't you see them, Mister? The moonlight things, the wind, the stars, the shadow things, and all the rest played with Pete in the shiny mists, and, course, I was along. Didn't you hear singin'? Pete he always sings that a way, when the moonlight things is out. Seems like he just can't help it."
"But what becomes of the sheep when Pete goes away?"
The boy shook his head sadly; "Sometimes they get so lost that Young Matt can't never find 'em; sometimes wolves get 'em; it's too bad, Mister, it sure is." Then laughing aloud, he clapped his hands; "There was a feller at the ranch to keep 'em, but he didn't stay; Ho! Ho! he didn't stay, you bet he didn't. Pete didn't like him, Brave didn't like him, nothing didn't like him, the trees wouldn't talk when he was around, the flowers died when he looked at 'em, and the birds all stopped singin' and went away over the mountains. He didn't stay, though." Again he laughed. "You bet he didn't stay! Pete knows."
"Why did the man go?" asked Mr. Howitt, thinking to solve a part of the mystery, at least. But the only answer he could draw from the boy was, "Pete knows; Pete knows."
Later when the stranger returned to the house, Pete went with him; at the big gate they met Mr. Matthews, returning unsuccessful from his trip.
"Hello, boy!" said the big man; "How's Pete to-day?"
The lad went with glad face to the giant mountaineer. It was clear that the two were the warmest friends. "Pete's mighty glad to-day, 'cause he's come." He pointed to Mr. Howitt. "Does Pete like him?"
The boy nodded. "All Pete's people like him. Ask him to keep the sheep, Uncle Matt. He won't be scared at the shadow things in the night."
Mr. Matthews smiled, as he turned to his guest. "Pete never makes a mistake in his judgment of men, Mr. Howitt. He's different from us ordinary folks, as you can see; but in some things he knows a heap more. I'm mighty glad he's took up with you, sir. All day I've been thinking I'd tell you about some things I don't like to talk about; I feel after last night like you'd understand, maybe, and might help me, you having education. But still I've been a little afraid, us being such strangers. I know I'm right now, 'cause Pete says so. If you weren't the kind of a man I think you are, he'd never took to you like he has."
That night the mountaineer told the stranger from the city the story that I have put down in the next chapter.