Chapter Five

According to promise, William returned to Madrone to tame two especially vicious horses for Mrs. Cochrane. Of course, neighboring ranchers quickly heard he was there and lost little time in persuading him to train "just one unmanageable horse" for them while in the region. Thus, the days stretched into weeks. He enjoyed that country and the talent he had for handling horses made him quite a number of friends among the horse ranchers.

On a particular Saturday evening, Bill suggested he buy tickets for a show they wanted to see in San José. Since it was his job as foreman of the corrals and bunkhouses to keep the cowboys within bounds of good behavior, Mrs. Cochrane suggested he escort them to San José for the usual whoop-it-up celebration, taking in the dance halls, saloons, or gambling tables. Arriving at the theater, William approached the ticket office, while his cowboy charges watched a group of religious singers from a Crittenden Mission. The street group were evidently drumming up an audience for their regular Saturday night religious services the Mission held, perhaps to head off a few drunken brawls that came regularly each weekend night.

William took out his chamois skin purse from his right pants pocket, plunked down a ten-dollar gold piece in front of the cashier. Tickets were "six-bits" apiece. While he was waiting for his change, he heard one of the more boisterous cowhands trying to open a conversation with one of the young girl singers. This hand, Buck, had done his usual whisky-drinking earlier. Buck had never been a big drinker, never a man to hold his liquor well. So, rejoining the merry makers, William heard Buck say, "You jes' leave it to ol' Buck to make you forgit your religion, girlie."

The young girl flushed, but tried to ignore the remark as she kept her eyes on the open hymnal.

"No pretenses, Sweetie," Buck sniggered, prodding one of his companions in the ribs to give him the impression it was all in fun. The girl frowned a little now, showing annoyance, but kept on singing.

"No pretenses," the tipsy cowhand repeated, finding it hard to put the words into sentences. "I know you like a good time as well as me. All you Christians are hypocrites anyway. You know that. What you really want is a little lovin', and I'm jes' the guy to give it to you."

At that remark, there instantly flashed through Bill's mind the memory of his former benefactor, Clayton, and the one example of outstanding kindness he had known when he was a filthy waif on the streets of Washington, and this Sunday-school superintendent had taken him home, fed and clothed him and offered to make him his own adopted son. He remembered, too, he had promised, "Someday Christ will make a man of you."

Bill had felled more than one man when a crowd would stand around the bar of any saloon, drinking and passing spurious remarks about people who professed adherence to God. In the eighties a religious spirit was beginning to settle over the Western ranges, threatening to stamp out the old, unbridled lawlessness. It was not received with friendliness by those who had never been check-reined before.

"I know there was nothing on earth that would cause a man to take me in when I was a boy, like Mr. Clayton did, if he had not been a true Christian," Bill had often reasoned. "I know that all the good of those who are sincere and I will never stand by and permit them to be scorned by drunken bums,"

Off would come the coat, and there would be another one of those quick-tempered fist fights for which he was well known. And when the fight was over, it always gave him such a feeling of power to know he was in command of a combustive situation, something similar to the feeling he had of mounting a vicious horse for the first time.

Only, in his combats with man, there was never any feeling of achievement as there was with the horse, just a realization of his overpowering strength. It was accompanied, however, by a feeling of dejection, self-abnegation, and shame. And that was the way he felt now as he viewed the prostrate Buck lying in the gutter.

"Fight! Fight!" went the dry up and down the street as Saturday revelers scampered to the scene.

Buck was too drunk to accommodate their lust for blood. "I'll apologize to the little lady," he offered, lifting his head from the dirt.

"You'll do more than that," Bill declared. "You'll attend the meeting inside, and you'll sober up and behave yourself."

Buck thought a moment before nodding his vigorous affirmation.

"Indeed, we'll all go in," William added. "Every damned one of us, and see if they can make Christians of the lot of us. That we will."

The Mission workers sang louder trying to get the street mob back in order. But it was no use. The street loiterers were demanding an out-and-out fight.

"Oh come on. Let's see you fight it out," one coaxed.

"You gonna let this big bully manhandle you like that?" another challenged.

Bill looked sharply at both, his eyes flashing fire like a stallion ready to charge.

"Let me hear one word out of you," he cautioned with more than a shade of anger, "And I'll crack your heads together."

The band leader called for a marching song.

"Onward Christian Soldiers," the band struck up. The little group got into quick formation and set off marching down the street while the group of submissive cowboys, knowing full well that Mullen was in no mood for trifling, followed reluctantly into the Mission.

Inside, the preacher announced the text:

"Look unto me, and ye shall be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God and beside me there is no one else."

"He is talking about me," Bill said, shame welling in his heart for the disturbance he had caused. "I am the end of the earth."

It was one thing to knock a man down in a saloon. It was something else again to break up a church gathering. He listened with consuming attentiveness forgetting his companions seated beside him. It seemed the preacher was talking directly to him. He was certain of it, for he looked at him with those grey eyes, calm eyes, as he explained what it meant to receive God's blessing of salvation.

"It means," he explained, "to have the load of sin lifted from you,"

"The load," Bill thought. "Could God ever lift the load from me?"

He was trembling. He could feel his knees strike each other like silver rowels clinking on a dance floor. He was afraid it was noticeable the way he trembled so. His legs were so weak he felt he could never walk to the livery stable where the horses waited to take them home. He wished he had not forced them to go to the meeting, forced himself.

The preacher turned to talking about how Saint Paul had turned to God and from that day on became a new man. Bill listened with rapt attention. He next talked of Paul's imprisonment, of his trials. He had a way of describing the historical sequences as to make the events seem to have just happened. Bill thought he could have been talking of California, so vivid and interesting was his account of his regeneration of the man Saul, Saul the cruel one, who became Paul the confident, believing one.

The preacher expounded with unquestionable conviction, "If Saint Paul had been like many Californians arraigned before a judge today with a price to buy his freedom and a willingness to go along with the corruption of the judge, he would have gotten freedom. Because he was poor, a poor missionary, they kept him in jail for two years without trial."

"What is the cause of the evils that are besetting us here?" Bill asked himself. "The drunken debauchery, the gambling, the theft, the bloodshed, the corruption in office, the fighting, the ballot box stuffing?"

Then the preacher told about how he had ridden over the Santa Cruz mountains from San Francisco and stopped at a little adobe inn and how he invited the guests of the inn to pray with him in the saloon before they all retired.

Bill said to himself, "Why don't I try it?"

"I promise you, religion will be worth more to you than all the gold of California and this is the only way to promote a genuine reform here."

Bill could not pull away from the conviction of his words. He know with his keen mind he spoke the truth, the only way to change a city was to change the hearts of the people in it, and he knew, with his open honesty, his heart needed changing.

"Yes, I'm just a great big bully," he said to himself. "There is no good in me. God, why am I the way I am? Why do I have to always be knocking men around just because I have a big fist and a big frame?"

And then he left off thinking of himself. Agonizing memories welled up inside him to cause a pain in his chest that wanted to explode. He realized the only way this little city and that bigger city, and the state, the nation, the world, could ever be reformed was by changing the hearts of the people in it. Yes, the preacher was right. It was a long, slow, hard process that embraced the ends of the earth and it began with one's self.

When the preacher was finished, a number of young people made short talks, for it was essentially a young people's testimonial meeting where a little band filled with the high idealism of youth spoke from frank inspiration of hearts not hardened with bitter contact of a stiff world. He listened to them, each one. He had never heard such utterances. He hadn't realized there were young people like this before. They even talked of being interested in him - him who had hurtled their well-planned meeting into confusion. And they were interested in poor, drunken Buck, even after his insulting remarks to this beautiful girl with the wide-open innocent eyes, who blushed easily but remained poised and calm.

William rose from his seat. "You young people have testified tonight for Jesus Christ," he said with a little smile stealing about the corners of his mouth.

He could not help but see the humor of the situation. Then he became serious, fumbled for words, and not finding them, blurted out with a sudden explosiveness, "I want to give testimony for the Devil, for I have served him all my life!"

"I am bad," he went on, slowly now, his face solemn and grave. "There is no goodness in me. I have tried to be good but I can't. You say that Jesus Christ will save me. Unless he does, I will never be any good, for every time I have tried, I have failed. But I am going to try again if God will save me as you say. I am not going to leave this building until he does."

Then he sat down, the big shoulders falling relaxed over his chest, his head dropped down so he had to hold his chin with his thumb and forefinger. His eyes were intent on the preacher now, and very grey.

When the meeting was over, an old lady invited him to go to the front of the mission and kneel. He did. She asked him to pray with her and wait on God for some miraculous power to work upon him. He knew it would have been a miracle. But he found instead this insistent old lady by his side heckled his very soul within.

"Brother, are you saved?" she kept repeating.

"She is the devil trying to tempt me," he said to himself. He was wanting to talk to this Stranger whom the preacher called Friend, to listen to Him; but all he could hear was the provoking words of an annoying old woman who kept repeating, "Brother, are you saved?"

She would not let him be alone with God. The fury rose within him. If the woman would only quit nagging him and go away. But it was no use. So he rose to his feet and made a weak little gesture to go. The preacher walked over to him; gave him his hand. He was surprised how strong it was for the little man that he appeared to be in the pulpit. And he, as big as he was, was almost too weak to walk

"Do you believe that God will save you?" the preacher asked.

"I do not know," Bill said, "I'm not quite sure. Not quite."

He felt he had reached his last irrevocable chance to contact God and lost it; muffed it somehow. His companions had already gone without him, disgusted, no doubt. He knew they would not be back before morning. He was glad. Now, at least, he was alone, except for the horse that would take him home.

He went directly to the livery stable as soon as he left the Mission, and, after paying his bill, he swung into the saddle. Astride, strength poured through his body, as that familiar animal strength joined his own, as it had so many times before. The weakness left him. He headed for Madrone.

The moonlight lighted his way with such a brilliance as to make the horse switch his tail joyously and snort excitedly as he attempted to take the gladsome miles.

"Easy now, Boy," he checked him. "There are some miles to go. Easy now."

He rode tall in the saddle, very tall, and he felt the stature of the man inside him grow to the full measure expected of the man astride. He had that trick of sitting erect but loosely, not gripping the saddle in any part, which was why he was tireless in the seat. As the blood coursed through his veins, his spirits soared. He sat now as though he were in a ladder-back chair. His shoulders fell well back, facing right in front of him, his legs hanging as straight as necessary for comfort. His feet were a little advanced and parallel with the horse's body. He was a picture of alertness for he never sat lazily in the saddle, only naturally. His feet remained still as the horse started to trot, he would raise the stirrup just so much and no more than the horse's actions demanded. And when, struck by the beauty of the evening, the horse broke into a happy lope, Bill's body gave every jump as he turned on either side, swinging his body and carrying the weight of the stirrup on the side to which the horse turned, and the feeling of mastery came back to him. He sensed the sweat of the horse's body, heard the slow musical creak of the leather, the rhythmical clop of the hard hooves on the road. He leaned over and stroked the horse's neck and a new calm entered his soul.

"You good, faithful brute, tell me one thing," he asked. "Why is it you and I get along so well, enjoy the world together, yet the meanness rises within me when I am with God's two-legged creatures?"

Go to Chapter Six

Return to Table of Contents