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Back to God's Country and Other Stories
James Oliver Curwood
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His First Penitent
In a white wilderness of moaning storm, in a wilderness of miles and miles of black pine-
trees, the Transcontinental Flier lay buried in the snow. In the first darkness of the wild
December night, engine and tender had rushed on ahead to division headquarters, to let
the line know that the flier had given up the fight, and needed assistance. They had been
gone two hours, and whiter and whiter grew the brilliantly lighted coaches in the drifts
and winnows of the whistling storm. From the black edges of the forest, prowling eyes
might have looked upon scores of human faces staring anxiously out into the blackness
from the windows of the coaches.
In those coaches it was growing steadily colder. Men were putting on their overcoats, and
women snuggled deeper in their furs. Over it all, the tops of the black pine-trees moaned
and whistled in sounds that seemed filled both with menace and with savage laughter.
In the smoking-compartment of the Pullman sat five men, gathered in a group. Of these,
one was Forsythe, the timber agent; two were traveling men; the fourth a passenger
homeward bound from a holiday visit; and the fifth was Father Charles. The priest's pale,
serious face lit up in surprise or laughter with the others, but his lips had not broken into a
story of their own. He was a little man, dressed in somber black, and there was that about
him which told his companions that within his tight-drawn coat of shiny black there were
hidden tales which would have gone well with the savage beat of the storm against the
lighted windows and the moaning tumult of the pine-trees.
Suddenly Forsythe shivered at a fiercer blast than the others, and said:
"Father, have you a text that would fit this night--and the situation?"
Slowly Father Charles blew out a spiral of smoke from between his lips, and then he
drew himself erect and leaned a little forward, with the cigar between his slender white
"I had a text for this night," he said, "but I have none now, gentlemen. I was to have
married a couple a hundred miles down the line. The guests have assembled. They are
ready, but I am not there. The wedding will not be to-night, and so my text is gone. But
there comes another to my mind which fits this situation--and a thousand others--'He who
sits in the heavens shall look down and decide.' To-night I was to have married these
young people. Three hours ago I never dreamed of doubting that I should be on hand at
the appointed hour. But I shall not marry them. Fate has enjoined a hand. The Supreme
Arbiter says 'No,' and what may not be the consequences'?"
"They will probably be married to-morrow," said one of the traveling men. "There will be
a few hours' delay--nothing more."