The Desert Pilot - Max Brand - ebook

The Desert Pilot ebook

Max Brand



Seattle-born author who worked as a cowhand in California, attended Berkeley, joined then deserted the Canadian Army, and finally settled down to writing full-time. He was incredibly prolific and wrote numerous books under his birth name (Frederick Faust) and a variety of pseudonyms. Today he is best known for his work published as Max Brand, including the classic Western "Destry Rides Again" and his popular series Dr. Kildare. In "The Desert Pilot", Reverend Reginald Ingram arrives in the town of Billman hoping to defeat the lawless. Then Ingram realizes he must make a choice between his peaceful ways and survival. Highly recommended, especially for those who love the Old Western genre.

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ONE step beyond Billman lay the desert; young Ingram, minister of the Gospel, took the single step and sat down in the shadow of a rock amid the wilderness. Already one needed the shadow; for though the sun was barely above the horizon–had lost the rose and gold of dawn only the moment before–it was now white with strength and flooded the desert with a scorching heat. When the knee of the Reginald Oliver Ingram projected into that heat, he withdrew it. It was as though a burning glass had been focused neatly on it. He looked down, half expecting to see the cloth of his trousers smoking. And this heat would increase until early afternoon, after which its power would diminish by almost imperceptible degrees. Until its face turned red, the sun would flood the desert with white fire.

Like shimmering snow was the face of that desert, except that snow is fixed and still, whereas the sands were covered with little wraiths and atmospheric lines. They quivered and throbbed, as a white-hot iron quivers and throbs. Mr. Ingram raised his eyes from the paper on his knee and took more careful stock of all that lay around him. He had been in Billman only a few days–not long enough to preach his first sermon, as a matter of fact–but he had come across the continent with a suitcase filled with books. From their well-studied contents he could name yonder gigantic saguaro, and the opuntias, surrounded with a halo of ivory sheen in the strong sunlight; and he knew also the deer-horn cactus not far off, the greasewood and mesquite on the sands.

To name all the living things in sight was to give an impression of companionable multitudes about him, but as a matter of fact all he observed was hardly more to the desert than is an occasional mist of white to the broad, pale bosom of the summer sky–nothing to give shadow, for the intense sun will look through the spectral clouds when it stands directly above them. So it was with this plant life–a few fantastic forms, looking like odd cartoons of animals, thrust in the sand with arms or legs extended foolishly–and yonder patches that looked like smoke against the sand.

But Mr. Ingram looked upon all these signs of desolation with an eye that was unafraid; for he carried about him a spiritual armor that blunted the edge of every danger and every painful instance: When he left the theological school, a wise, ancient and holy man had said to him: “Now you are about to enter the world. Leave some of your books and bookishness behind you. Be a man among men; trust the angels a little less and man a little more!” The Reverend, Reginald Ingram smiled as he thought of this speech. For, looking across the desert, it seemed to him that the hand of God was visibly revealed, and he penned hastily and strongly the first words of the sermon which he would deliver later that morning: “Dear brothers and sisters whom I meet here at the edge of our civilization, we have gone very far from our old homes and we have left many of our old ideas behind us; we even have stepped beyond the reach of the law, I suppose; but we have not passed beyond the reach of God, and I wish to speak to you today concerning the signs of His loving Fatherhood which are scattered about us, though the signs are unregarded by most of us, I fear.”

Having finished this burst, he paused, knitting his brows with the farseeing effort of a poet or a prophet. He glanced then to the tall forms of the San Joaquin Mountains far to the north and east, now washed with tides of light through air so pure and thin and dry that he could see the shadows which the boulders cast and almost pick out the individual trees which straggled up to timber line. Beyond that line was a band of purple, and above the purple lay the glittering caps of snow and eternal ice which, like a cup of haunting coolness, were offered forever to the sight of the parched desert beneath. A gleam of wings near by drew his attention to the fluttering butterfly which wafted aimlessly up and down close to the sand, all jeweled and transparent in the powerful sun.

The rapid pencil of the Reverend Reginald Oliver Ingram ran again over the paper: “Here, beyond the law, conscious of our own strength, and aware of the apparently cruel face of nature, we prepare ourselves for battle. But our Father in heaven permits life without battle, and sends out unarmed multitudes, who persist and give the earth gentleness and beauty. Consider the butterfly that flutters softly over the desert, harmless, soft, brilliant in the sun–”

He looked up for inspiration to complete his sentence, and noticed an active little cactus wren, balanced on a hideous thorn of the deer-horn plant.

“–or the wren,” dashed on the swift pencil of the minister, “spreading his wings that the sun may flash through them and make of him a double jewel–”

He looked again, and saw almost at his feet a little yellow beetle looking as hard and glittering as a piece of quartz.

He touched it with the eraser of his pencil; it was, indeed, like pressing on a rock.

“–or the beetle,” went on the writer in glad haste, “like a nugget of gold on the face of the desert. But these defenseless ones which can harm nothing and which give joy to the world teach us that we, also–”

Something whirred through the air; the butterfly was clipped in two by the long, wicked beak of the wren. The quivering halves tumbled almost at the feet of the watcher, but since he had sat quietly so long, the bird seemed to accept him as a part of the landscape, and pursuing its prey, gobbled up the feast and was gone.

Mr. Ingram looked down at his page and puckered his lips in thoughtful regret. However he continued: “Teach us that we, also, have been placed in the world to make it beautiful with the work of the heart and not terrible and dangerous with the work of the hand. Gentleness is mightier than pride–”

He paused again, and saw that the golden beetle had encountered a smaller insect. Whatever it might have been, it was now unrecognizable. For the yellow beauty, beating its shardlike wings with joy or anger, was already tearing the weaker thing to bits.

“Gentleness is mightier than pride,” insisted Mr. Ingram’s pencil, “and the triumphs of the strong are, in reality, not triumphs at all; they are soon avenged!”

He completed the sentence rather grimly, and another whir in the air attracted him once more to the wren, which had dropped like lightning from its bower of thorns and attacked the golden beetle.

There was no battle. The beetle depended on the toughness of its armor, and depended in vain, for soon Ingram could hear the crackling of this natural coat of plate, and the beetle presently disappeared. Thereafter, the wren flitted onto a stone, and sat there opening its beak wide, pulling in its head, and ruffling its feathers as though it found its recent tough meal very hard to digest.

“I hope you choke on it!” said the minister sternly to the bird. And he wrote: “Vengeance is near at hand, and we are being watched by a higher power. The victories which we win are always just around the corner from defeat!”

So wrote the man of God, and he had barely finished this sentence when new ideas forced themselves upon him, and he added fluently: “Put off your guns and knives! The God who rules heaven and earth is a God of peace. Trust to Him, and He will lead you out of your troubles. What blow can threaten you that He will not ward away?”

He felt a glow of triumphant conviction as he finished. At that instant he heard a hiss like a volley of arrows whirring above him; a shadow slanted with incredible speed past his head; the wren was blotted out; there was a shrill scream, and away winged the big hawk which had dropped from the blue–and now sailed back into it, carrying a little tuft of crimsoned feathers in one set of talons.

Ingram watched the bird of prey rising gracefully and rapidly, climbing the sky in great spirals. It reminded him of the men he had seen in Billman since his arrival–lean, quiet men, who, when they were roused to action, struck with sudden and deadly stroke. And all at once he felt more than a little helpless, for it seemed to him that he could hear the chuckles of his audience when he told them later that morning that there was no value in might or in the strong hand.

What lessons of gentleness could he derive from that nature where the smaller beetle was eaten by the larger, the larger by the wren, the wren by the hawk which towered in the sky, and the hawk, in turn, perhaps struck down by the soaring eagle? However, he would not be downhearted at once.

He followed the flight of the hawk past the cold summits of the San Joaquin range, and as he did so, the glory of the great Builder possessed his imagination. New ideas crowded upon him and drove his pencil at breakneck speed until he had covered several sheets; and when he stood up from the shadow of the rock and faced the glare of the sun, the sermon which had haunted him since his arrival at Billman was completed.

He glanced at the pages from time to time as he wandered back into the town; and before he reached his shack, he knew that the thing was firm in his memory. At his door he stood for a moment and watched the wind roll a cloud of dust up the street more swiftly than a horse could gallop. So let the idea which had come to him on this morning sweep through the minds of his auditors, and freshen in them the almost obliterated image of their Creator!

He entered his little house and was startled by the figure of a Dominican monk, whose fat body was covered with a gown of not over-clean rusty black, girded with a long cord. The monk turned and grasped the hand of Ingram.

“Good morning, Mr. Ingram,” said he. “I am Brother Pedrillo. I’ve come to welcome a fellow-worker to Billman.”

Ingram did not like the use of the word “fellow-worker”. Young Mr. Ingram had been bred to a faith which does not look kindly upon the Roman Catholic creed; but in addition, he felt in himself so much aspiring vigor, such a contempt of the flesh, that to be yoked with Brother Pedrillo was like harnessing an ox in the same team with Pegasus.

So he turned away, busied himself putting up his notes for the sermon, and revolved swiftly in his mind the attitude which he should assume. However, the Lord works His will in mysterious ways. The Reverend Reginald decided that he would force himself into friendliness with the Dominican. Humility is ordained very early in the Gospel.

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