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Ralph Connor - The Sky Pilot: A Tale Of The Foothills

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" Ralph Connor " is the pen-name of a Canadian clergyman whose novels came into great vogue just at the end of the nineteenth century. His tales are, with one exception, set in the wild regions of Canada, usually in what is loosely called "the Northwest." This is more literally middle Canada, the real North-west being still untouched so far as literature is concerned. The scene of The Sky Pilot is Alberta, and the time only just enough removed from the present to place it in the period before farmers began seriously to encroach on the lands held by cattlemen. The romantic life of the "Wild West," which once belonged to the United States alone, and which has made a great impression on its literature, has been transferred to Canada through the rapid conquest of that fresh country by pioneers; and Ralph Connor's scenes, therefore, are Canadian by the accident of lying north of the line at a time when ranch life south of it has become measurably regulated by law, and so tamer and less interesting.

BECAUSE, first, I was a failure as a college student, and, second, because I had a cousin in the wilds of Alberta, I was permitted to try what good I could do for myself, and possibly for others, in that country; and so, having passed somewhat beyond the tenderfoot stage, I became the school-teacher at Swan Creek. At the time of my arrival, and for some time thereafter, the dominating social force of that neighborhood was the Noble Seven. Whatever this was originally, it had long outgrown its numerical limitation, and its present purpose was to give periodical opportunity for whisky-drinking and poker-playing. Liquor-selling is prohibited by law in Alberta, but one may make medicinal use of whisky in case of illness; and when the Noble Seven were about to meet, one or more, usually more, of its members fell conveniently ill, and enough whisky was brought in to cure all the disorders of the entire community for a twelvemonth. As the meetings were usually held on the first day of the week, the time and occasion came to be known as Permit Sunday.

The most conspicuous member of the Noble Seven was "the Duke." We never learned his name. It was known, doubtless, to the Hon. Fred Ashley, of Ashley Ranch, for there the Duke was a frequent and familiar visitor; but neither the Hon. Fred nor his wife, Lady Charlotte, ever mentioned it. The Duke was the coolest gambler and the most reckless drinker and rider of them all. Next to him came a cross-grained Scotchman named Bruce. I put him next, not because he so much excelled the others in such matters as pertain to ranch life, as because he was so devoted to the Duke as to seem in some sort a part of him. Bruce submitted to no control save that of the Duke, and endured from him what others of us probably would have resented. He was a University of Edinburgh man, while Hi Kendal and Bronco Bill, the Hon. Fred's two cowboys, were as ignorant as they were untamed.

The rest of the company consisted of just such brave-hearted men, recognizing none but their own laws, as are to be found wherever cattle-raising is carried on in an unfenced country. It was to this country and this sort of men that Arthur Welling-ton Moore came. I was the first to know of his coming, because he announced his intentions with regard to Swan Creek in a letter addressed to the schoolmaster. It informed me that he purposed to do missionary work there, and a notice of the first meeting was enclosed, which he asked me to post in some conspicuous place. Moreover, he left it to me to find the place for holding the meeting, and I selected the parlor of the Stopping-Place, which in another community might have been called a hotel, the parlor likewise being the barroom of the establishment.

The time appointed for the meeting fell on a Permit Sunday, so there was sure to be plenty of persons for the making of an audience; but a baseball game was scheduled for that day, and I appointed the time for religious services immediately after the game. The cowboys were disgusted when they read the announcement. They foresaw that their Sunday diversions would come in for criticism. .Who invented the title I do not know, but before Moore arrived his real name was forgotten and he was known only as the "Sky Pilot." This was soon abbreviated to Pilot, and he was seldom addressed or alluded to by any other term. His appearance was as much against him as his vocation; for he was slight of figure, young to boyishness, and easily embarrassed.

The first service was enough to dampen the ardor of an older, more experienced missionary. Perhaps it was his very youth and innocence that made him persevere. The men were inclined to interrupt his remarks, and would have behaved much worse than they did if the Duke had not restrained them; but at the end of the sermon they took to arguing with the boy on the subject of his discourse, and Bruce, with his university training and his Scottish pugnacity, had the little Pilot sadly flustered. When the dreadful ordeal was over, he told me sadly that he could not understand it. Then his eyes flashed, and he declared that he knew he was right; men could not be men without Him, and he would not give up the attempt to lead them to Him!

It seemed a hopeless, pitiable enthusiasm. The Noble Seven laughed at, ignored, or despised the Pilot, according to each man's temperament. One day a ball game was on, and Bronco Bill, the pitcher for one side, failed to appear. Hi, the catcher, was in despair when somebody ironically suggested putting the Pilot into the box. The Pilot was looking on, his face expressive of puzzlement, pain, and some sort of longing. Hi contemptuously asked him whether he could pitch, and when the Pilot admitted that he could, " a little," he was allowed to try. The result was a revelation to Swan Creek. Such pitching never had been dreamed of, much less seen, in that country. Nobody could hit the little man's curves effectively. He couldn't do very well at the bat himself, but, having got to first base on a short hit, he usually made home by clever running that completely outwitted the field side. Hi's nine won the game by thirty-seven to nine, or some such overwhelming score, and the Pilot scored relatively for his own standing in the community.

But that, of course, did not make the men his religious followers; it simply established him higher in their respect for him as a man. They had already begun to like his enthusiastic way of telling a story, and he had made more than one heart ache by unexpectedly reviving past memories in singing a song; but it was not till Bruce's misadventure that he really won them.

Bruce had been drinking more and more heavily. The Pilot, who blinked nothing and feared nobody, had taken the Duke to task for not exercising his evident influence over the Scotchman to make him more temperate in his habits, and had been coldly rebuffed for his pains. The climax came at a meeting of the Seven, when Bruce, very drunk, began to shoot the lights out. The others hurried to places of safety, but the Duke tried to get Bruce's revolver away from him. In the scuffle the weapon went off, and an ugly hole was torn in the fleshy part of Bruce's arm. The wound alone was not dangerous, but Bruce's general condition made his case hopeless. He went into a delirium, and the Duke rode over to my shack to get me to take my bromides to the sufferer. I returned with him, and the Pilot accompanied us uninvited. When we arrived at Bruce's cabin, he was lying on his bed, singing a hymn, and punctuating the stanzas by shooting at snakes and demons. Neither the Duke nor I cared to enter while that fusillade was in progress, but the Pilot, in spite of our appeals, went to the door, waited until a shot had been fired, stepped in, and asked interestedly, "Did you get him?"

"No," said Bruce, "he dodged like the devil."

"Then we'll smoke him out," said the Pilot, and began to put wood in the stove. He talked cheerfully while he worked, assuring poor Bruce that wood smoke was the one thing demons feared, and in short order he had water boiling and tea made. It was an exhibition of courage and tact that completely won the Duke.

"There'll be no more Permit Sundays," he whispered, and he kept his word, with the exception that on the Permit Sundays that followed the Pilot occupied the chair.

All night long the Pilot stayed at Bruce's bed, singing to him, telling him stories of the old country, soothing his fears. The Duke galloped away for a doctor, who came and did all that a doctor could do. It was no more than to prolong the man's life a bit and make the end a little easier, perhaps, though to us who watched it was patent enough that Bruce's pathetic lucidity at the last was due more to the Pilot than to medicines.

The Duke stretched his hand across the dead man's bed and asked the Pilot to pardon him for his former rudeness.

"Don't," was the Pilot's reply, almost sobbing, "I can't stand it."

Another conquest awaited the Pilot—the conquest of Gwen, much more difficult than that of Bruce and the Duke. Gwen was the only child of the first settler thereabout. Her mother had died when she was little more than a baby, and she had grown up unlettered and unrestrained, a daredevil on horse-back, a tyrant in her home. Her father, Meredith, had no influence over her, though she loved him deeply, and, as in Bruce's case, the one human being she bowed to was the Duke. It was only the Duke's influence that induced her to submit to my instruction in the rudiments of learning, and even he could not prevail on her to see the Pilot. Old Meredith had well-nigh moved out of the country because of the Pilot's coming, and Gwen shared his prejudice. But one day the Pilot tried to ford the Swan not far from the old settler's ranch. His horse was unequal to the task, and the Pilot would have drowned if Gwen had not used her lariat cleverly and brought him to shore. The plain, human man that he was, and that it took most of us so long to discover, was magnificently displayed in his behavior on that occasion. He was nettled, humiliated to be saved by a girl! She gleefully compelled him to admit that she had saved him, and he professed gratitude enough, but, with as much stubborn spirit as she herself had, he declared that he could make the ford, and what was more, he would; and what was more still, he tried to, in spite of Gwen's frightened warnings. His horse came ashore again after a furious struggle, and the Pilot was " all in," but Gwen brought him to and insisted that he come to the house for dry clothes, and to wait till the weather was more favorable.

The Pilot went with visible unwillingness. His purely human side, which, when you knew it, was as big as all out-doors, was crushed, but the spiritual side came to the rescue when once he was in the house and had dry clothes on. There was an old parlor organ there, unused since the death of Gwen's mother. The moment the Pilot saw it, he ran to it uninvited, sat down and went to singing songs to his own accompaniment. This was entertaining enough, but presently we were amazed to see the old settler crying. Gwen was indignant, but " Oft in the Stilly Night," as Meredith chokingly explained, was her mother's song. That opened the way to the bringing forth of her mother's Bible, and a long evening of reading followed, broken by Gwen's amazed questions and the Pilot's elucidations in quaint, easily comprehended language. The Pilot thereafter was more welcome in the old settler's house than was the schoolmaster; but Gwen was as wilful and perverse with him as she had been with me, or with anybody. He tried to teach her of God's omnipotence, and she wouldn't have it. "I've always had my way, and I always will," she cried. He gravely assured her that the time would come when she could not do as she wished, and she flouted him. Her attitude was nothing short of a challenge to the Almighty.

Within a week the test came. She was saving the life of an Indian boy, riding with him before a stampede of cattle. Her horse, forced to the edge of the canyon, refused to obey the bridle and pounded on a bit of turf where the bank bit in. The turf collapsed. Gwen could not jump for safety because she clung to the Indian, and they all went down, thirty feet, in a heap. The Indian was the only one unhurt. Gwen received such injuries that, although she had the best of surgical attention, she never could walk or ride again.

We kept this sad certainty from her as long as we could, else she would have died; but she had to know some time, and when the truth was told her rebellion was at once pathetic and terrible. Not to ride again! Why, it was her life! She would ride! Nothing should prevent her from getting well. Helpless on her cot, suffering frightful physical agony, she defied God.

The Pilot dreaded to go to her. We told him he was the one person who could help her, and he turned on us fiercely. We were all to blame. The fault was all ours. What! because of her physical wreck? No! No! Because her spirit was so proud and ungovernable. Had we not, everyone, from her father down, always yielded to her, always declared that her childish tyrannies were pretty? Had we not done every mortal thing fool men could do to make her proud and perverse?

In this frame of mind he set out, with apparent reluctance, to visit the sufferer. Our way lay through the canyon, Gwen's favorite spot in all the world she knew. She never could ride there again, and the Pilot groaned at thought of it. "What can I say to her?" he cried despairingly. What did he say? Why, the moment he was in her room he burst into an enthusiastic description of the canyon, just as he had then seen it. With his vivid word-painting he made her see it, till her eyes brightened and she forgot her pain. Day after day he called, and always his talk was of the beauties of the things she could not again see with her own eyes.

Naturally enough the time came when there was a reaction in Gwen's spirit. The old imperiousness broke forth, and she complained of God that He had afflicted her. She asked such questions about God's goodness as children will, such as most of us find unanswerable; but Gwen had more than a child's comprehension, and the Pilot more than most men's share of prophetic vision. He had brought her that day a handful of flowers plucked in her canyon. After the conventional answers to her questions had failed to satisfy her, he told of the time when there were no canyons, only broad prairies. The Master wished to see flowers growing there, and the prairies told him the winds carried away the seeds the birds dropped, so that none would grow. Then the Master smote the prairie and made a terrible gash in it, so that for long the earth groaned with pain; but the Swan poured its waters along the wound, and in time, when the birds dropped the flower-seeds, they fell where the winds could not reach them. They fell, too, on well-watered soil, and so grew and flourished in all their beauty. He likened the canyon flowers to gentleness, meekness, and self-control, and Gwen understood him.

"But there are only ragged rocks in my canyon," she said sadly.

"They will bloom some day," he assured her. "God will find them and we shall see them."

And we did, for Gwen gradually grew to be a marvel of patience—not one of your doleful, resigned-because-she-had-tobe kind, but a cheerful sufferer whom it delighted you to visit, for you saw how much pleasure your visit gave to the poor thing, and you derived as much if not more good from it yourself. The Pilot's hold was now more complete on the cowboys than on the professing church people of the country. They would do anything for him, as witness their endeavors to realize for him the Pilot's chief ambition. He wanted a church building, but the amount of money needed, about seven hundred dollars in addition to labor, seemed to be out of proportion to the resources of the district. The church people were back-ward, more than hesitant, and the Pilot was in despair. It was then that Bronco Bill took hold. Bill's attitude toward Christianity may be inferred from his treatment of an agnostic who had strayed into one of the Pilot's meetings. He was a young chap, barely out of his tenderfoot days, and he ventured to argue with the Pilot as Bill and his friends had argued at the first meeting. Several times Bill called him to order, trying to make him see that he had struck a false note, and that doubters of the Pilot's doctrines should have the good taste to be silent. The young chap wouldn't take the hint, and Bill, exasperated beyond endurance, yanked him out of doors, where he proceeded to make him "walk turkey," up and down, back and forth, in the snow, until Mr. Agnostic, utterly exhausted, was ready to cry "Credo" to Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, or any other "ism" it might please Bill to nominate.

Bill took hold of the church building. He told the regular church people that if they would put up two hundred dollars he would see that the cowboys supplied the other five hundred dollars. This was regarded, even by his friends, as a bluff, and the church people paid no attention to it. But Bill meant business and knew what he was about. He got at the cowboys of the region just after they had been paid off, and in his uncouth but effective way started a subscription. This soon amounted to a good fraction of the total. Then he had recourse to Gwen's assistance. She it was who had secretly inspired him to make the "bluff," and she was eager to contribute her share. As she never could ride again, she asked Bill to sell her pinto pony. He said he would try, and by a horse-trading trick he hocus-pocused the Hon. Fred Ashley into paying one hundred dollars for a forty-dollar animal. To this purchase-price he secretly added fifty dollars, so that Gwen's contribution was one hundred and fifty dollars. In such ways he raised the five hundred dollars, and the regular church people, out of pure shame, had to put up the rest.

After that Bill took financial charge of the work of construction, beating down the lumber-dealers, and contriving by all means, no matter how they smacked of sharp practice, to get the building up without wasting a dollar in profit to anybody. It was the Pilot's hope that the structure could be completed in time to open it for services on Christmas, and this was accomplished; but, most unhappily, the dear Pilot himself could not conduct the first service, or any other, in it.

We had not noticed it until near the end, but as we looked back we could see that the Pilot had been failing for a long time. The rigorous life of the foothills had not hardened him. Some of us thrive on it; others are so constituted that it kills them. The Pilot sent word on Christmas morning, from Meredith's ranch, where he had been ill for many days, that he could not come to service, and that Bill must open the church for him. It was a task that, in the circumstances, might have abashed even a clergyman; Bill would have run from much less if it had not been the Pilot's bidding. There had to be a psalm and a prayer. We managed the psalm somehow, but the prayer! Bill asked for volunteers, and nobody offering, he was compelled to attempt it himself.

It was not good English; it had not even Bill's ordinary fluency of utterance; in his very opening he told the Almighty that it was doubtless "persoomin' to try this sort o' business"; but it was comprehensible to us as a passionate appeal that the Pilot might be spared because we needed him; and if we understood it there can be no doubt that God felt the full force of it. At the end, Lady Charlotte timidly began the Lord's Prayer, and those who could do so joined in it. Then, after an awkward pause, Bill said abruptly, "This here church is open. Excuse me!" and rushed to his horse, that he might go to the bedside of the dying Pilot.

It was not in the Divine plan that the Pilot should preach in the church that had been built in the main by those whom he had conquered, but if ever a man preached unceasingly by his influence, Moore did, for I have seen evidence of it whenever and wherever I have met the men who were my companions during those two years in the foothills.

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