The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter VI. The Story.
Slowly the big mountaineer filled his cob pipe with strong, home grown tobacco, watching his guest keenly the while, from under heavy brows. Behind the dark pines the sky was blood red, and below, Mutton Hollow was fast being lost in the gathering gloom.
When his pipe was lighted, Old Matt said, "Well, sir, I reckon you think some things you seen and heard since you come last night are mighty queer. I ain't sayin', neither, but what you got reasons for thinkin' so."
Mr. Howitt made no reply. And, after puffing a few moments in silence, the other continued, "If it weren't for what you said last night makin' me feel like I wanted to talk to you, and Pete a takin' up with you the way he has, I wouldn't be a tellin' you what I am goin' to now. There's some trails, Mr. Howitt, that ain't pleasant to go back over. I didn't 'low to ever go over this one again. Did you and Pete talk much this afternoon?"
In a few words Mr. Howitt told of his meeting with the strange boy, and their conversation. When he had finished, the big man smoked in silence. It was as if he found it hard to begin. From a tree on the mountain side below, a screech owl sent up his long, quavering call; a bat darted past in the dusk; and away over on Compton Ridge a hound bayed. The mountaineer spoke; "That's Sam Wilson's dog, Ranger; must a' started a fox." The sound died away in the distance. Old Matt began his story.
"Our folks all live back in Illinois. And if I do say so, they are as good stock as you'll find anywhere. But there was a lot of us, and I always had a notion to settle in a new country where there was more room like and land wasn't so dear; so when wife and I was married we come out here. I recollect we camped at the spring below Jim Lane's cabin on yon side of Old Dewey, there. That was before Jim was married, and a wild young buck he was too, as ever you see. The next day wife and I rode along the Old Trail 'til we struck this gap, and here we've been ever since.
"We've had our ups and downs like most folks, sir, and sometimes it looked like they was mostly downs; but we got along, and last fall I bought in the ranch down there in the Hollow. The boy was just eighteen and we thought then that he'd be makin' his home there some day. I don't know how that'll be now, but there was another reason too why we wanted the place, as you'll see when I get to it.
"There was five other boys, as I told you last night. The oldest two would have been men now. The girl"--his voice broke--"the girl she come third; she was twenty when we buried her over there. That was fifteen year ago come the middle of next month.
"Everybody 'lowed she was a mighty pretty baby, and, bein' the only girl, I reckon we made more of her than we did of the boys. She growed up into a mighty fine young woman too; strong, and full of fire and go, like Sammy Lane. Seems to wife and me when Sammy's 'round that it's our own girl come back and we've always hoped that she and Grant would take the ranch down yonder; but I reckon that's all over, now that Ollie Stewart has come into such a fine thing in the city. Anyway, it ain't got nothing to do with this that I'm a tellin' you.
"She didn't seem to care nothin' at all for none of the neighbor boys like most girls do; she'd go with them and have a good time alright, but that was all. 'Peared like she'd rather be with her brothers or her mother or me.
"Well, one day, when we was out on the range a ridin' for stock-- she'd often go with me that way--we met a stranger over there at the deer lick in the big low gap, coming along the Old Trail. He was as fine a lookin' man as you ever see, sir; big and grand like, with lightish hair, kind, of wavy, and a big mustache like his hair, and fine white teeth showing when he smiled. He was sure good lookin', damn him! and with his fine store clothes and a smooth easy way of talkin' and actin' he had, 'tain't no wonder she took up with him. We all did. I used to think God never made a finer body for a man. I know now that Hell don't hold a meaner heart than the one in that same fine body. And that's somethin' that bothers me a heap, Mr. Howitt.
"As I say, our girl was built like Sammy Lane, and so far as looks go she was his dead match. I used to wonder when I'd look at them together if there ever was such another fine lookin' pair. I ain't a goin' to tell you his name; there ain't no call to, as I can see. There might be some decent man named the same. But he was one of these here artist fellows and had come into the hills to paint, he said."
A smothered exclamation burst from the listener.
Mr. Matthews, not noticing, continued: "He sure did make a lot of pictures and they seemed mighty nice to us, 'though of course we didn't know nothin' about such things. There was one big one he made of Maggie that was as natural as life. He was always drawin' of her in one way or another, and had a lot of little pictures that didn't amount to much, and that he didn't never finish. But this big one he worked at off and on all summer. It was sure fine, with her a standin' by the ranch spring, holdin' out a cup of water, and smilin' like she was offerin' you a drink."
It was well that the night had fallen. At Old Matt's words the stranger shrank back in his chair, his hand raised as if to ward off a deadly blow. He made a sound in his throat as if he would cry out, but could not from horror or fear. But the darkness hid his face, and the mountaineer, with mind intent upon his story, did not heed.
"He took an old cabin at the foot of the hill near where the sheep corral is now, and fixed it up to work in. The shack had been built first by old man Dewey, him that the mountain's named after. It was down there he painted the big picture of her a standin' by the big spring. We never thought nothin' about her bein' with him so much. Country folks is that way, Mr. Howitt, 'though we ought to knowed better; we sure ought to knowed better." The old giant paused and for some time sat with his head bowed, his forgotten pipe on the floor.
"Well," he began again; "he stopped with us all that summer, and then one day he went out as usual and didn't come back. We hunted the hills out for signs, thinkin' maybe he met up with some trouble. He'd sent all his pictures away the week before, Jim Lane haulin' them to the settlement for him.
"The girl was nigh about wild and rode with me all durin' the hunt, and once when we saw some buzzards circlin', she gave a little cry and turned so white that I suspicioned maybe she got to thinkin' more of him than we knew. Then one afternoon when we were down yonder in the Hollow, she says, all of a sudden like, 'Daddy, it ain't no use a ridin' no more. He ain't met up with no trouble. He's left all the trouble with us.' She looked so piqued and her eyes were so big and starin' that it come over me in a flash what she meant. She saw in a minute that I sensed it, and just hung her head, and we come home.
"She just kept a gettin' worse and worse, Mr. Howitt; 'peared to fade away like, like I watched them big glade lilies do when the hot weather comes. About the only time she would show any life at all was when someone would go for the mail, when she'd always be at the gate a waitin' for us.
"Then one day, a letter come. I brung it myself. She give a little cry when I handed it to her, and run into the house, most like her old self. I went on out to the barn to put up my horse, thinkin' maybe it was goin' to be alright after all; but pretty soon, I heard a scream and then a laugh. 'Fore God, sir, that laugh's a ringin' in my ears yet. She was ravin' mad when I got to her, a laughin', and a screechin', and tryin' to hurt herself, all the while callin' for him to come.
"I read the letter afterwards. It told over and over how he loved her and how no woman could ever be to him what she was; said they was made for each other, and all that; and then it went on to say how he couldn't never see her again; and told about what a grand old family his was, and how his father was so proud and expected such great things from him, that he didn't dare tell, them bein' the last of this here old family, and her bein' a backwoods girl, without any schoolin' or nothin'."
"My God! O, my God!" faltered the stranger's voice in the darkness.
Old Matt talked on in a hard easy tone. "Course it was all wrote out nice and smooth like he talked, but that's the sense of it. He finished it by sayin' that he would be on his way to the old country when the letter reached her, and that it wouldn't be no use to try to find him.
"The girl quieted down after a spell, but her mind never come back. She wasn't just to say plumb crazy, but she seemed kind o' dazed and lost like, and wouldn't take no notice of nobody. Acted all the time like she was expectin' him to come. And she'd stand out there by the gate for hours at a time, watchin' the Old Trail and talkin' low to herself.
"Pete is her boy, Mr. Howitt, and as you've seen he ain't just right. Seems like he was marked some way in his mind like you've seen other folks marked in their bodies. We've done our best by the boy, sir, but I don't guess he'll ever be any better. Once for a spell we tried keepin' him to home, but he got right sick and would o' died sure, if we hadn't let him go; it was pitiful to see him. Everybody 'lows there won't nothin' in the woods hurt him nohow; so we let him come and go, as he likes; and he just stops with the neighbors wherever he happens in. Folks are all as good to him as they can be, 'cause everybody knows how it is. You see, sir, people here don't think nothin' of a wood's colt, nohow, but we was raised different. As wife says, we've most forgot civilized ways, but I guess there's some things a man that's been raised right can't never forget.
"She died when Pete was born, and the last thing she said was, 'He'll come, Daddy, he'll sure come.' Pete says the wind singin' in that big pine over her grave is her a callin' for him yet. It's mighty queer how the boy got that notion, but you see that's the way it is with him.
"And that ain't all, sir." The big man moved his chair nearer the other, and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper; "Folks say she's come back. There's them that swears they've seen her 'round the old cabin where they used to meet when he painted her picture, the big one, you know. Just before I bought the ranch, it was first; and that's why we can't get no one to stay with the sheep.
"I don't know, Mr. Howitt; I don't know. I've thought a heap about it, I ain't never seen it myself, and it 'pears to me that if she could come back at all, she'd sure come to her old Daddy. Then again I figure it that bein' took the way she was, part of her dead, so to speak, from the time she got that letter, and her mind so set on his comin' back, that maybe somehow--you see--that maybe she is sort a waitin' for him there. Many's the time I have prayed all night that God would let me meet him again just once, or that proud father of his'n, just once, sir; I'd glad go to Hell if I could only meet them first. If she is waitin' for him down there, he'll come; he'll sure come. Hell couldn't hold him against such as that, and when he comes--"
Unconsciously, as he spoke the last sentences, the giant's voice took a tone of terrible meaning, and he slowly rose from his seat. When he uttered the last word he was standing erect, his muscles tense, his powerful frame shaken with passion.
There was an inarticulate cry of horror, as the mountaineer's guest started to his feet. A moment he stood, then sank back into his chair, a cowering, shivering heap.
Long into the night, the stranger walked the floor of his little room under the roof, his face drawn and white, whispering half aloud things that would have startled his unsuspecting host. "My boy--my boy--mine! To do such a thing as that! Howard--Howard. O Christ! that I should live to be glad that you are dead! And that picture! His masterpiece, the picture that made his fame, the picture he would never part with, and that we could never find! I see it all now! Just God, what a thing to carry on one's soul!"
Once he paused to stand at the window, looking down upon the valley. The moon had climbed high above the mountain, but beneath the flood of silver light the shadows lay dark and deep in Mutton Hollow. Then as he stood there, from out the shadowy gloom, came the wild, weird song they had heard the evening before. The man at the window groaned. The song sank to a low, moaning wail, and he seemed to hear again the wind in the pine above the grave of the murdered girl. She was calling, calling--would he come back? Back from the grave, could he come? The words of the giant mountaineer seemed burned into the father's brain; Hell couldn't hold him against such as that.
Then the man with the proud face, the face of a scholar and poet, drew back from the window, shaking with a fear he could not control. He crept into a corner and crouched upon the floor. With wide eyes, he stared into the dark. He prayed.
And this is how it came about that the stranger, who followed the Old Trail along the higher sunlit ground, followed, also, the other trail down into the valley where the gloomy shadows are; there to live at the ranch near the haunted cabin--the shepherd of Mutton Hollow.