Nels Lundquist entered the little sod house in which he and his family had made their home during the five years they had lived on the Nebraska prairie. He placed his rifle on its accustomed pegs in the wall and turned to greet his wife.
Noticing the troubled expression upon his face, she asked, “How was he?”
“I don’t know, Martha, I didn’t see him this time.”
The solemnity in his voice frightened her. “You don’t think he is…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“No, I don’t think he is dead; at least, I hope not. But there wasn’t any smoke coming out of his chimney. I called the dog and he was there.”
“You didn’t let the dog come near you, did you?” anxiously queried his wife.
“No, I threw rocks at him to keep him away.”
Crossing the room and seating himself before the hearth, the man aimlessly poked at the logs upon the fire. Finally he thrust out, “Martha, it doesn’t seem right, it isn’t Christ-like, we must do something. Just last night you were telling of the priest and the Levite. Sick old Matt isn’t a stranger, but our neighbor, and a good one.”
With a pained but determined look on her face, Martha replied, “Think of little Nelda and Arvid. We can’t risk their lives. Anyway, we are taking him food and leaving it near the door. What more can we do?”
“I shudder when I think that he may be too sick even to crawl to the threshold to get it,” answered her husband.
Just then their conversation was interrupted by a vigorous knock at the door. Mrs. Lundquist opened it.
“Come, warm yourself by the fire and tell us your errand.”
“I was returning from the Junction with a few supplies,” explained the youth, “and old White Foot was getting pretty tired. Therefore, I decided to stop and rest him awhile.”
Ralph noticed a strained expression upon the faces of his friends as he was talking.
“You look worried. Has anything happened?”
“Yes, Ralph, we are worried,” replied his host. “Four days ago our neighbor, Old Matt, who lives east of us about a quarter of a mile, was taken sick. At first it didn’t seem to be serious, but day before yesterday, as I was approaching his cabin, he called and told me not to come near, for he thought he had the smallpox. I dislike to endanger my family, yet I feel it is my Christian duty to care for him. Matt is a good man; he drifted in here about two years ago and built himself a one-room shack. The results of his good influence are to be seen on every hand. He has never said much about himself. I don’t even know his full name or whether he had any folks or not.”
“Surely there is someone who can give him assistance,” protested Ralph.
“No, there doesn’t seem to be anyone around here who has had the smallpox or who is willing to run the risk of getting it,” answered Mr. Lundquist soberly.
“I can do it,” suggested Ralph calmly.
“You!” they both gasped in astonishment.
“Yes, let me go. You see, I can’t take smallpox, for I’ve been vaccinated,” Ralph explained as he rolled up his sleeve and showed his friends the round scar on his arm.
“Do you remember that terrible storm we had in January about two years ago? That night a doctor who had been visiting some relatives up the country was delayed in reaching town by the storm, so he stayed with us. That evening, as we were visiting, dad happened to mention how near he came to dying from smallpox during the War of 1812. That aroused the doctor’s interest, and he told us about the wonderful discovery of vaccination by Edward Jenner, and English physician, and we were surprised to learn that it is now being successfully used in this country. In fact, he said that he was using the vaccine himself. I begged him to try this experiment on me. My father consented, so he made a few scratches on my arm and rubbed on some of this magic medicine. It took, and a scab formed which fell off in a few days, leaving this scar. Even though two years have passed since then, I haven’t taken smallpox, although I have been exposed twice. I’m sure that if dad were here, he would care for old Matt himself. Dad never loses an opportunity to help someone, even if it means risking his own life. You know the reason, of course. I’m better, though, at taking care of sick people than dad is.”
Seven years before, Ralph’s father had been left a widower with three sons. Ralph, being the eldest, had taken the place of a mother to his two younger brothers.
“We couldn’t think of letting you risk your life,” exclaimed the Lundquists as the youth paused for breath. They were a bit skeptical in regard to any new-fangled notion, as they called this vaccination for smallpox of which they had been hearing a great deal.
“I am eighteen,” argued Ralph, “and, besides that, I know dad would give his permission.”
Finally he won their consent to his plan, and was soon on his way to the home of old Matt, it having been agreed that he was to signal the Lundquists if their old neighbor was still alive.
Upon receiving the assurance that old Matt lived, Nels Lundquist set out upon the fifteen mile journey to inform the elder Guinn of his son’s whereabouts. He planned to bring the younger Guinn children to his own home, that they might be cared for by his wife during Ralph’s absence.
“I wonder,” pondered the man as he rode along, “What Ralph meant by saying that he supposed I knew why his father never missed an opportunity to do a good turn.”
The hour was growing late as he saw in the distance a light which made him realize that he was nearing the end of his journey.
When the reason for his son’s absence had been told, Mr. Guinn remarked, “That’s just like the boy, but I’m glad he went. It is too late for you to start back tonight, Lundquist. Come in and rest. You can get an early start in the morning. I will have the children ready then, since you insist on taking them home with you.”
As they sat around the fire discussing the weather and such problems as confronted those hardy pioneers, Mr. Lundquist suddenly said, “John, that son of yours spoke about your willingness to help anyone in need or trouble, as if there was some mystery attached thereto. Tell me about it.”
“I thought that everyone in this country knew about my miraculous escape from death,” answered the elder Guinn, surprised. “But if you don’t, you shall hear it now.”
“It happened when I was a young man several years older than Ralph. I was a careless, indifferent youth who took many unnecessary risks. We had moved to the Ohio Valley after I was nearly grown, and the Indians were on the warpath most of the time. Thinking that I was capable of caring for myself, I left my companions one day while out hunting, and was captured by a band of Indians. How I escaped being scalped then and there is more than I know. They seemed in no hurry to get rid of me, yet I didn’t know what moment would be my last.”
“Finally, one day about three weeks after I had been taken captive, a white man strode into camp. I watched his actions closely, as he seemed to be acquainted with this band of red men. Upon seeing me and guessing what my fate was to be, he tried to gain my freedom, with the results that my captors only became angry and threatened his life. He was evidently a trapper, as he had a great number of skins with him.”
“But finally after much bickering, I was actually turned over to this stranger, though it cost him everything he possessed. The few days that I was in his company he treated me very kindly, and through his influence I resolved to mend my ways. We parted without my being able to repay him for his great sacrifice, and I lost track of him entirely. I have hunted for him for years without success. My failure caused me to resolve to risk my life, if need be, to help my fellow men and to give unselfishly of my worldly possessions to those in need. In this way I hope indirectly to repay my debt, in a small measure at least, to one who sacrificed his all for me. And it was a sacrifice, for those skins which were exchanged for my life represented the work of an entire winter.”
“Would you know him if you saw him again?”
“Yes, I think so. He had a queer scar over his right eye in the shape of a half circle. He must be quite an old man now if he is still living.”
Nels Lundquist was up at daybreak to start for home, because he was anxious to see Ralph. Suppose the vaccination did not protect the boy? Suppose he should take the smallpox?
Meanwhile, the self-appointed nurse was busy caring for old Matt. His knowledge was limited, but he possessed kindness, patience, and a firm determination to succeed in everything he undertook.
A search of the cabin, which was begun in an attempt to find a clue regarding the relatives of the old man, was of no avail. He noticed a half-moon scar above the patient’s eye while bathing his fevered brow, but thought nothing of it until the next day when he discovered an old rifle in a corner of the room with the name “Matt Sawyer” carved on the stock.
“Why!” he exclaimed to himself, “that was the name of the man who saved dad’s life. No, it couldn’t be he—what would he be doing here?”
For fear that he might be mistaken, he said nothing about his discovery.
After some weeks the sick man began to improve, and Ralph was satisfied that he would live. As he gained strength, he thanked his young nurse time and time again, with tears in his eyes, for saving his life. He realized, had he been left alone, he would have died.
Then one day Ralph’s father came to see his son, and to make the acquaintance of old Matt. The boy met his father at the door, and with an air of importance drew him aside and told him about the rifle.
“Yes,” Mr. Guinn said, when he saw it, “this is Matt’s gun. Now let me see the man himself, and if the scar is there, as you say, son, it must be he.”
As they approached the bedside, the old man spoke, “I can never repay your son for his kindness to me.”
“You owe us nothing,” exclaimed the visitor, choked with emotion. “I am the one who is still indebted to you. I have been searching for you these many years, Mr. Sawyer.”
“But I have never seen you before,” the old man exclaimed in feeble surprise.
John Guinn bent close. “Look at me. Don’t you remember? You saved my life long years ago, when the Indians were about to kill me.”
“Ah, yes! I remember,” mused the old man thoughtfully. “God is good.” After a moment came the words, “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.”
--from Miss Virginia Shull, July 29, 1956