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My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter II. My First Missionary Journey

IT was a typical Wyoming day in August. The air was crisp and cool and bracing. The stage left Cheyenne promptly at six in the morning. As one seated himself beside the driver on the high box, which is considered the choice place and must be reserved in advance, and breathed the ozone of the plains, a peculiar sense of exhilaration came over him. It was my first stage-ride in the Far West. I began to congratulate myself on the prospect of an enjoyable time. I have since learned, by long experience, that the best part of a stage-ride is the first hour or two. After one has ridden all day and all night, and perhaps the greater part of the second day, the idea of enjoyment has departed. They change horses every fifteen or twenty miles, and the driver is relieved at nightfall by some one to take his place, but the unfortunate passenger who is booked to the end of the route gets no change. On this occasion it was about four in the afternoon on the second day that I arrived at my destination. I was covered with alkali-dust, and must have looked as unlike a bishop as possible.

As the stage halted and I alighted, I was cordially greeted by a man in his shirt-sleeves. He offered his services, and said he thought I looked like a parson. After a little conversation, I told him who I was.

"Why, are you the bishop? Well, I am delighted to see you. What can I do for you?"

I asked him if he could tell me where my old friend from Missouri, Mr. Robinson, lived.

"Do you mean Billy Robinson?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied. "They used to call him 'William' back in Missouri, but that is the man."

"Oh yes," said he, "I know Billy Robinson well. In fact, I busted broncos for Billy for two years. Billy is a fine fellow. Everybody knows Billy. And so you are a friend of Billy Robinson! How glad he will be to see you! He lives about two miles out of town. He has a big ranch, and is getting rich. Bishop, if you will let me, I will be proud to take you out to Billy's place."

I thanked him for his offer.

He then said, "I am sorry, Bishop, not to give you a carriage. It is a pity not to give a bishop a carriage, but there are no carriages here. This is a new town. But can you ride a bronco?"

"Oh yes, thank you," I replied. "I was brought up on a farm and educated on a mule and am familiar with horses, and I think I can manage a bronco."

"Good," he said. "Now, Bishop, I have two broncos. One bucks pretty hard and the other bucks kind o' mild."

"Well," said I, "suppose you let me have the one that bucks kind of mild."

Accordingly, we were soon galloping towards Billy Robinson's ranch. My bronco proved to be literally a "mild" bucker, and only indulged that natural tendency on one occasion, when I jumped him over a pair of bars, and my valise, which I was holding in front, fell on his neck. As we reached the outskirts of the little village, I remember my new friend said to me:

"Say, Bishop, I want to put myself straight with you. I believe in a square deal. I don't want you to get the idea that I am one of your religious fellows, for I am not. I am a Bob Ingersoll man through and through, and all of us boys here are Bob Ingersoll men, and we take the Boston Investigator. My name is Billy Bartlett, and I run this saloon here in town. When I saw you get out of the stage, I thought you looked sort o' lonesome-like, and made up my mind to give you the glad-hand."

I thanked him for his courtesy, and tried to set him at ease by assuring him that I did not think Mr. Ingersoll so bad a man after all; that I thought him a good citizen and a kind father, and believed he loved his fellow-man; and that I had often thought that if I did not care what I believed as to the future, I might be a Bob Ingersoll man myself.

"Especially," I added, facetiously, "if I were engaged in your line of business."

"But tell me, Mr. Bartlett," I continued, "what is the Boston Investigator? I have often heard of Boston, but never, until now, of the Boston Investigator."

"Ah," said he, "that is Bob's paper. It has lots of jokes in it, and Bob pokes fun at Moses and the Bible, and we boys all sit around the stove at night and laugh."

So the conversation went on. He reminded me that "back East" he used to go to church, and that his uncle was a "Second Advent" preacher, but that he had not been to "meetin'" once since he came West, nearly ten years ago.

"Why, Bishop," he added, "you are the first preacher that ever came to this town."

I assured him that, as the town was new and far distant from the railroad, the church was a little late in coming; but that I hoped some arrangement might be made to have regular services maintained.

Soon we came in sight of Mr. Robinson's ranch, and seeing a man coming out of the barn, Mr. Bartlett exclaimed:

"There he is. That's Billy Robinson. Now, Bishop, you must just keep this bronco and use him the rest of the day. I have no further use for him, and to-night you can ride him into church. Billy Robinson will want to show you his cattle and horses and sheep and his fine ranch and irrigating ditches, and then he will give you a good supper and bring you in to meetin'. So, if you will excuse me, Bishop, I will go back in town and roundup all the boys."

"Oh, thank you very much," said I. "But I do not think that is at all necessary, Mr. Bartlett, for I sent your postmaster a number of printed notices announcing the service for this evening in the school-house. I also wrote him a polite note and asked him to be good enough to let all the people know of my coming in advance."

"Ah, but Bishop, that plan did not work at all. No doubt the postmaster got your circulars, but he is the meanest Bob Ingersoll man in the whole business. He probably stuck all your posters in the stove. No, the people don't know you're coming. Why, I didn't even know it myself. So you must let me go, and I'll send out some cow-boys on their broncos, and we'll round-up every galoot in the country, and pack that school-house for you."

With that remark he turned his horse around and was about to leave, when it occurred to me that I had made no provision for the music.

"Excuse me, Mr. Bartlett," I said, "but do you sing?"

"Now, Bishop," he replied, "who gave me away? Who told you that I sing? You have caught right on to my racket. It just happens that I am a jo-dandy at singing, and I also play the fiddle and the organ."

"How fortunate I am," I remarked. "Then will you take charge of the music?"

He demurred at first, and said he did not think a fellow of his kind was "fit for that business." But I insisted. I told him we should not try the chants or anything difficult, but simply have some old familiar hymns, like "Rock of Ages" and "Jesus Lover of My Soul." At last he said:

"Well, Bishop, if you say so, it is a go. I'll do my best."

After spending the rest of the day with Mr. Robinson, renewing the old associations and memories of our life in Missouri, and enjoying the excellent supper so hospitably provided for me, we rode back to the town. To my surprise, the school-house was indeed crowded. Every available space in the little building was filled. Never in my life did I preach a sermon where I was given a more reverent and attentive hearing. As to Billy Bartlett, who presided at the organ, he sang, as his friends said, "like a bird." After the service he came up to me, and, with tears in his eyes, grasped my hand. With much emotion he thanked me, and said:

"Bishop, that talk will do us boys a world of good. That is the kind of stuff that we fellers need. Can't you stay over and give us another to-morrow night? There are some of the boys who couldn't get here to-night who would like to hear you. And are we never to have a church? Can't you send us a preacher? Bishop, if you will send us a preacher, all of us chaps will pitch in and support him and stand by him."

It was not long after this visit that I was able to secure a young man for that region who proved most acceptable. Nothing could have been more admirable than the manly spirit with which he threw himself into his work, and soon won the hearts of those sturdy pioneers; and I had the happiness to dedicate a seemly church which they so generously helped to build.

It was a year later that I visited the same place. Meanwhile, I had attended the great missionary council which met in the city of Washington. It was held in the Church of the Epiphany, and Bishop Whipple was in the chair. It was late when I entered the crowded building, and I had some difficulty in finding a seat. Some one was delivering a missionary address. When he closed, Bishop Whipple arose, and, pointing his long finger towards the remote part of the church in which I sat, said:

"I see the Bishop of Wyoming and Idaho has just come in. Come this way, my young brother."

As I had had no intimation that I should be called on to speak, it was rather an embarrassing situation; but I had to obey. When I reached the platform, the good bishop put his arm around me, and said:

"Now, my brother, tell us something about the progress of the Kingdom out in the Rockies."

Having no speech prepared, I launched forth as best I could, and among other things told the people, as I have tried to tell my readers now, the story of Billy Bartlett and Billy Robinson and the bucking bronco. I dwelt upon the great kindness these two good friends had shown me, and described the solemn and impressive service in that little school-house on the prairies. I little dreamed that every word I uttered was being taken down by the reporter of the Washington Post. The article found its way to Denver, and appeared in the Denver Republican and the Rocky Mountain News. It was copied in the northern Wyoming papers. Of all this I was blissfully ignorant. And now, after the lapse of a whole year, I was revisiting the scene of my first missionary visit. I had driven through a blinding snow-storm to Billy Robinson's ranch. He was expecting me. He bade me alight and go into the little sitting-room which was his bachelor headquarters. I was chilled from long exposure to the cold and wind. Billy Robinson was putting my horses in his stable. As I stood by the stove warming myself I could not but admire and wonder at the orderly neatness which characterized the little room. Just behind the stove-pipe was an evergreen wreath. Suspended from a pin within the circle was a clipping from a newspaper. Naturally I was interested in it. I thought it probable that it was the obituary notice of Billy Robinson's mother, who had recently died. I drew nearer. Imagine my surprise as I read the heading, "A Hustling Bishop from the Wild West." There was my Washington speech recounting my hearty reception by the two Billys a year ago. As I was engaged in reading it, Billy Robinson came in.

"Ah, Bishop," he said, "I see you are reading it. Why, you gave us a great send-off. That speech of yours has been read from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As soon as I saw it I went out and made that wreath for mine. Billy Bartlett has had his put in a nobby frame, and says he wouldn't take a thousand dollars for it."

Of course it was delightful to feel that they were pleased, and had not considered for a moment that I had committed any breach of hospitality.

My good friend Robinson is still flourishing in his cattle business in Wyoming, while Billy Bartlett has given up his saloon and is making an honest living on a ranch away out in the State of Washington.

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