[Transcriber's note: The spelling irregularities of the original have been preserved in this etext.]
VANGUARDS OF THE PLAINS
VANGUARDS OF THE PLAINS
A ROMANCE OF THE OLD SANTA FE TRAIL
BY MARGARET HILL McCARTER
AUTHOR OF The Price of the Prairie
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON
VANGUARDS OF THE PLAINS
1917, Harper & Brothers Printed in the United States of America
This story of the old Santa Fe Trail would do honor to the memory of those stalwart men who defied the desert, who walked the prairies boldly, and who died bravely—vanguards in the building of a firm highway for the commerce of a westward-moving Empire.
CLEARING THE TRAIL
I. THE BEGINNINGS OF A PLAINSMAN II. A DAUGHTER OF CANAAN III. THE WIDENING HORIZON IV. THE MAN IN THE DARK V. WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST VI. SPYING OUT THE LAND VII. "SANCTUARY" VIII. THE WILDERNESS CROSSROADS
BUILDING THE TRAIL
IX. IN THE MOON OF THE PEACH BLOSSOM X. THE HANDS THAT CLING XI. "OUR FRIENDS—THE ENEMY" XII. THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE PLAINS XIII. IN THE SHELTER OF SAN MIGUEL XIV. OPENING THE RECORD XV. THE SANCTUARY ROCKS OF SAN CHRISTOBAL XVI. FINISHING TOUCHES XVII. SWEET AND BITTER WATERS
DEFENDING THE TRAIL
XVIII. WHEN THE SUN WENT DOWN XIX. A MAN'S PART XX. GONE OUT XXI. IN THE SHADOW OF THE INFINITE
REMEMBERING THE TRAIL
XXII. THE GOLDEN WEDDING
Westward, along the level prairies of a kingdom yet to be, my memory runs, with a clear vision of the days when romance died not and strong hearts never failed. The glamour of the plains is before my eyes; the tingle of courage, danger-born, is in my pulse-beat; the soft hand of love is touching my hand. I live again the drama of life wherein there are no idle actors, no stale, unmeaning lines. And beyond the action, this way up the years, there runs also the forward-gazing vision toward a new Hesperides:
Through the veins Of whose vast Empire flows, in strength'ning tides, Trade, the calm health of nations.
* * * * *
And sometimes I would doubt If statesmen, rocked and dandled into power, Could leave such legacies to kings.
CLEARING THE TRAIL
VANGUARDS OF THE PLAINS
A ROMANCE OF THE SANTA FE TRAIL
THE BEGINNINGS OF A PLAINSMAN
There came a time in the law of life When over the nursing sod The shadows broke, and the soul awoke In a strange, dim dream of God. —LANGDON SMITH.
It might have been but yesterday that I saw it all: the glinting sunlight on the yellow Missouri boiling endlessly along at the foot of the bluff; the flood-washed sands across the river; the tangle of tall, coarse weeds fringing them, edged by the scrubby underbrush. And beyond that the big trees of the Missouri woodland, so level against the eastern horizon that I used to wonder if I might not walk upon their solid-looking tops if I could only reach them. I wondered, too, why the trees on our side of the river should vary so in height when those in the eastern distance were so evenly grown. One day I had asked Jondo the reason for this, and had learned that it was because of the level ground on the farther side of the valley. I began then to love the level places of the earth. I love them still. And, always excepting that one titanic rift, where the world stands edgewise, with the sublimity of the Almighty shimmering through its far depths, I love them more than any other thing that nature has yet offered to me.
But to come back to that picture of yesterday: old Fort Leavenworth on the bluff; the little and big ravines that billow the landscape about it; the faint lines of trails winding along the hillsides toward the southwest; the unclouded skies so everlastingly big and intensely blue; and, hanging like a spray of glorious blossoms flung high above me, the swaying folds of the wind-caressed flag, now drooping on its tall staff, now swelling full and free, straight from its gripping halyards.
Between me and the fort many people were passing to and fro, some of whom were to walk with me down the long trail of years. Evermore that April day stands out as the beginning of things for me. Dim are the days behind it, a jumble of happy childish hours, each keen enough as the things of childhood go; but from that one day to the present hour the unforgotten deeds of busy years run clearly in my memory as I lift my pen to write somewhat of their dramatic record.
And that this may not seem all a backward gaze, let me face about and look forward from the beginning—a stretch of canvas, lurid sometimes, sometimes in glorious tinting, sometimes intensely dark, with rifts of lightning cleaving through its blackness. But nowhere dull, nowhere without design in every brush-stroke.
I had gone out on the bluff to watch for the big fish that Bill Banney, a young Kentuckian over at the fort, had told me were to be seen only on those April days when the Missouri was running north instead of south. And that when little boys kept very still, the fish would come out of the water and play leap-frog on the sand-bars.
If I failed to see them this morning, I meant to run back to the parade-ground and play leap-frog myself with my cousin Beverly, who wanted proof for most of Bill Banney's stories. Beverly was growing wise and lanky for his age. I was still chubby, and in most things innocent, and inclined to believe all that I heard, or I should not have been taken in by that fish story.
We were orphans with no recollection of any other home than the log house near the fort. We had been fathered and mothered by our uncle, Esmond Clarenden, owner of the little store across the square from our house, and a larger establishment down at Independence on the Missouri River.
Always a wonderful man to me was that Esmond Clarenden, product of one of the large old New England colleges. He found time to guard our young years with the same diplomatic system by which he controlled all of his business affairs. He laid his plans carefully and never swerved from carrying them through afterward; he insisted on order in everything; he rendered value for value in his contracts; he chose his employees carefully, and trusted them fully; he had a keen sense of humor, a genial spirit of good-will, and he loved little children. Fitted as he was by culture and genius to have entered into the greater opportunities of the Eastern States, he gave himself to the real up-building of the West, and in the larger comfort and prosperity and peace of the Kansas prairies of to-day his soul goes marching on.
The waters, as I watched them, were all running south toward that vague, down-stream world shut off by trees at a bend of the course. I waited a long time there for the current to shift to the north, wondering meanwhile about those level-topped forests, and what I might see beyond them if I were sitting on their flat crests. And, as I wondered, the first dim sense of being shut in came filtering through my childish consciousness. I could not cross the river. Big as my playground had always been, I had never been out of sight of the fort's flagstaff up-stream, nor down-stream. The wooded ravines blocked me on the southwest. What lay beyond these limits I had tried to picture again and again. I had been a dreamer all of my short life, and this new feeling of being shut in, held back, from something slipped upon me easily.
As I sat on the bluff in the April sunshine, I turned my face toward the west and stretched out my chubby arms for larger freedom. I wanted to see the open level places, wanted till it hurt me. I could cry easily enough for some things. I could not cry for this. It was too deep for tears to reach. Moreover, this new longing seemed to drop down on me suddenly and overwhelm me, until I felt almost as if I were caught in a net.
As I stared with half-seeing eyes toward the wooded ravines beyond the fort, suddenly through the budding branches I caught sight of a horseman riding down a half-marked trail into a deep hollow. Horsemen were common enough to forget in a moment, but when this one reappeared on the hither side of the ravine, I saw that the rider's face was very dark, that his dress, from the sombrero to the spurred heel, was Mexican, and that he was heavily armed, even for a plainsman. When he reached the top of the bluff he made straight across the square toward my uncle Esmond Clarenden's little storehouse, and I lost sight of him.
Something about him seemed familiar to me, for the gift of remembering faces was mine, even then. A fleeting childish memory called up such a face and dress somewhere back in the dim days of babyhood, with the haunting sound of a low, musical voice, speaking in the soft Castilian tongue.
But the memory vanished and I sat a long time gazing at the wooded west that hid the open West of my day-dreams.
Suddenly Jondo came riding up on his big black horse to the very edge of the bluff.
"You are such a little mite, I nearly forgot to see you," he called, cheerily. "Your Uncle Esmond wants you right away. Mat Nivers, or somebody else, sent me to run you down," he added, leaning over to lift me up to a seat on the horse behind him.
Few handsomer men ever graced a saddle. Big, broad-shouldered, muscular, yet agile, a head set like a Greek statue, and a face—nobody could ever make a picture of Jondo's face for me—the curling brown hair, soft as a girl's, the broad forehead, deep-set blue eyes, heavy dark brow, cheeks always ruddy through the plain's tan, strong white teeth, firm square chin, and a smile like sunshine on the gray prairies. Eyes, lips, teeth—aye, the big heart behind them—all made that smile. No grander prince of men ever rode the trails or dared the dangers of the untamed West. I did not know his story for many years. I wish I might never have known it. But as he began with me, so he ended—brave, beloved old Jondo!
Down on the parade-ground Beverly Clarenden and Mat Nivers were sitting with their feet crossed under them, tailor fashion, facing each other and talking earnestly. Over by the fort, Esmond Clarenden stood under a big elm-tree. A round little, stout little man he was, whose sturdy strength and grace of bearing made up for his lack of height. Like a great green tent the boughs of the elm, just budding into leaf, drooped over him. A young army officer on a cavalry horse was talking with him as we came up.
"Run over there to Beverly now. Gail," my uncle said, with a wave of his hand.
I was always in awe of shoulder-straps, so I scampered away toward the children. But not until, child-like, I had stared at the three men long enough to take a child's lasting estimate of things.
I carry still the keen impression of that moment when I took, unconsciously, the measure of the three: the mounted army man, commander of the fort, big in his official authority and force; Jondo on his great black horse, to me the heroic type of chivalric courage; and between the two, Esmond Clarenden, unmounted, with feet firmly planted, suggesting nothing heroic, nothing autocratic. And yet, as he stood there, square-built, solid, certain, he seemed in some dim way to be the real man of whom the other two were but shadows. It took a quarter of a century for me to put into words what I learned with one glance that day in my childhood.
As I came running toward the parade-ground Beverly Clarenden called out:
"Come here, Gail! Shut your little mouth and open your big ears, and I'll tell you something. Maybe I'd better not tell you all at once, though. It might make you dizzy," he added, teasingly.
"And maybe you better had," Mat Nivers said, calmly.
"Maybe you'd better tell him yourself, if you feel that way," Beverly retorted.
"I guess I'll do that," Mat began, with a twinkle in her big gray eyes; but my cousin interrupted her.
Beverly loved to tease Mat through me, but he never got far, for I relied on her to curb him; and she was not one to be ruffled by trifles. Mat was an orphan and, like ourselves, a ward of Esmond Clarenden, but there were no ties of kinship between us. She was three years older than Beverly, and although she was no taller than he, she seemed like a woman to me, a keen-witted, good-natured child-woman, neat, cleanly, and contented. I wonder if many women get more out of life in these days of luxurious comforts than she found in the days of frontier hardships.
"Well, it's this way, Gail. Mat doesn't know the straight of it," Beverly began, dramatically. "There's going to be a war, or something, in Mexico, or somewhere, and a lot of soldiers are coming here to drill, and drill, and drill. And then—"
The boy paused for effect.
"And then, and then, and then—or some time," Mat Nivers mimicked, jumping into the pause. "Why, they'll go to Mexico, or somewhere. And what Bev is really trying to tell hasn't anything to do with it—not directly, anyhow," she added, wisely. "The only new thing is that Uncle Esmond is going to Santa Fe right away. You know he has bought goods of the Santa Fe traders since we couldn't remember. And now he's going down there himself, and he's going to take you boys with him. That's what Bev is trying to get out, or keep back."
"Whoopee-diddle-dee!" Beverly shouted, throwing himself backward and kicking up his heels.
I jumped up and capered about in glee at the thought of such a journey. But my heart-throb of childish delight was checked, mid-beat.
"Won't Mat go, too?" I asked, with a sudden pain at my throat. Mat Nivers was a part of life to me.
The smile fell away from the girl's lips. Her big, sunshiny gray eyes and her laughing good nature always made her beautiful to Beverly and me.
"I don't want to go and leave Mat," I insisted.
"Oh, I do," Beverly declared, boastingly. "It would be real nice and jolly without her. And what could a little girl do 'way out on the prairies, and no mother to take care of her, while we were shooting Indians?"
He sprang up and took aim at the fort with an imaginary bow and arrow. But there was a hollow note in his voice as if it covered a sob.
"She can shoot Indians as good as you can, Beverly Clarenden, and, besides, there isn't anybody to mother her here but Jondo, and I reckon he'll go with us, won't he?" I urged.
Mothering was not in my stock of memories. The heart-hunger of the orphan child had been eased by the gentleness of Jondo, the championship of Mat Nivers, and the sure defense of Esmond Clarenden, who said little to children, and was instinctively trusted by all of them.
With Beverly's banter the smile came back quickly to Mat's eyes. It was never lost from them long at a time.
"Beverly Clarenden, you keep your little mouth shut and your big ears open," she began, laughingly. "I know the whole sheboodle better 'n any of you, and I'm not teasing and whimpering both at the same time, neither. Bev doesn't know anything except what I've told him, and I wasn't through when you got here, Gail. There is going to be a big war in Texas, and our soldiers are going to go, and to win, too. Just look up at that flag there, and remember now, boys, that wherever the Stars and Stripes go they stay."
"Who told you all that?" Beverly inquired.
"The stars up in the sky told me that last night," Mat replied, pulling down the corners of her mouth solemnly. "But Uncle Esmond hasn't anything to do with the war, nor soldiers, only like he has been doing here," the girl went on. "He's a store-man, a merchant, and I guess he's just about as good as a general—a colonel, anyhow. But he's too short to fight, and too fat to run."
"He isn't any coward," Beverly objected.
"Who said he was?" Mat inquired. "He's one of them usefulest men that keeps things going everywhere."
"I saw a real Mexican come up out of the ravine awhile ago and go straight over toward Uncle Esmond's store. What do you suppose he came here for? Is he a soldier from down there?" I asked.
"Oh, just one Mexican don't mean anything anywhere, but the war in Mexico has something to do with our going to Santa Fe, even if Uncle Esmond is just a nice little store-man. That's all a girl knows about things," Beverly insisted.
Mat opened her big eyes wide and looked straight at the boy.
"I don't pretend to know what I don't know, but I'll bet a million billion dollars there is something else besides just all this war stuff. I can't tell it, I just feel it. Anyhow, I'm to stay here with Aunty Boone till you come back. Girls can be trusted anywhere, but it may take the whole Army of the West, yet, to follow up and look after two little runty boys. And let me tell you something, Bev, something I heard Aunty Boone say this morning." She said: "Taint goin' to be more 'n a minnit now till them boys grows up an' grows together, same size, same age. They been little and big, long as they goin' to be. Now you know what you're coming to."
Mat was digging in the ground with a stick, and she flipped a clod at Beverly with the last words. Both of us had once expected to marry her when we grew up, unless Jondo should carry her away as his bride before that time. He was a dozen years older than Mat, who was only fourteen and small for her age. A flush always came to her cheeks when we talked of Jondo in that way. We didn't know why.
We sat silent for a little while. A vague sense of desolateness, of the turning-places of life, as real to children as to older folk, seemed to press suddenly down upon all three of us. Ours was not the ordinary child-life even of that day. And that was a time when children had no world of their own as they have to-day. Whatever developed men and women became a part of the younger life training as well. And while we were ignorant of much that many children then learned early, for we had lived mostly beside the fort on the edge of the wilderness, we were alert, and self-dependent, fearless and far-seeing. We could use tools readily: we could build fires and prepare game for cooking; we could climb trees, set traps, swim in the creek, and ride horses. Moreover, we were bound to one another by the force of isolation and need for playmates. Our imagination supplied much that our surroundings denied us. So we felt more deeply, maybe, than many city-bred children who would have paled with fear at dangers that we only laughed over.
No ripple in the even tenor of our days, however, had given any hint of the coming of this sudden tense oppression on our young souls, and we were stunned by what we could neither express nor understand.
"Whatever comes or doesn't come," Beverly said at last, stretching himself at full length, stomach downward, on the bare ground, "whatever happens to us, we three will stand by each other always and always, won't we, Mat?"
He lifted his face to the girl's. Oh, Beverly! I saw him again one day down the years, stretched out on the ground like this, lifting again a pleading face. But that belongs—down the years.
"Yes, always and always," Mat replied, and then because she had a Spartan spirit, she added: "But let's don't say any more that way. Let's think of what you are going to see—the plains, the Santa Fe Trail, the mountains, and maybe bad Indians. And even old Santa Fe town itself. You are in for 'the big shift,' as Aunty Boone says, and you've got to be little men and take whatever comes. It will come fast enough, you can bet on that."
Yesterday I might have sobbed on her shoulder. I did not know then that out on the bluff an hour ago I had come to the first turn in my life-trail, and that I could not look back now. I did know that I wanted to go with Uncle Esmond. I looked away from Mat's gray eyes, and Beverly's head dropped on his arms, face downward—looked at nothing but blue sky, and a graceful drooping flag; nothing but a half-sleepy, half-active fort; nothing but the yellow April floods far up-stream, between wooded banks tenderly gray-green in the spring sunshine. But I did not see any of these things then. Before my eyes there stretched a vast level prairie, with dim mountain heights beyond them. And marching toward them westward, westward, past lurking danger, Indians here and wild beasts there, went three men: the officer on his cavalry mount; Jondo on his big black horse; Esmond Clarenden, neither mounted nor on foot, it seemed, but going forward somehow. And between these three and the misty mountain peaks there was a face—not Mat Nivers's, for the first time in all my day-dreams—a sweet face with dark eyes looking straight into mine. And plainly then, just as plainly as I have heard it many times since then, came a call—the first clear bugle-note of the child-soul—a call to service, to patriotism, and to love.
All that afternoon while Mat Nivers sang about her tasks Beverly and I tried to play together among the elm and cottonwood trees about our little home, but evening found us wide awake and moping. Instead of the two tired little sleepy-heads that could barely finish supper, awake, when night came, we lay in our trundle-bed, whispering softly to each other and staring at the dark with tear-wet eyes—our spiritual barometers warning us of a coming change. Something must have happened to us that night which only the retrospect of years revealed. In that hour Beverly Clarenden lost a year of his life and I gained one. From that time we were no longer little and big to each other—we were comrades.
It must have been nearly midnight when I crept out of bed and slipped into the big room where Uncle Esmond and Jondo sat by the fireplace, talking together.
"Hello, little night-hawk! Come here and roost," Jondo said, opening his arms to me.
I slid into their embrace and snuggled my head against his broad shoulder, listening to all that was said. Three months later the little boy had become a little man, and my cuddling days had given place to the self-reliance of the fearless youngster of the trail.
"Why do you make this trip now, Esmond?" Jondo asked at length, looking straight into my uncle's face.
"I want to get down there right now because I want to get a grip on trade conditions. I can do better after the war if I do. It won't last long, and we are sure to take over a big piece of ground there when it is over. And when that is settled commerce must do the real building-up of the country. I want to be a part of that thing and grow with it. Why do you go with me?"
My uncle looked directly at Jondo, although he asked the question carelessly.
"To help you cross the plains. You know the redskins get worse every trip," Jondo answered, lightly.
I stared at both of them until Jondo said, laughingly:
"You little owl, what are you thinking about?"
"I think you are telling each other stories," I replied, frankly.
For somehow their faces made me think of Beverly's face out on the parade-ground that morning, when he had lifted it and looked at Mat Nivers; and their voices, deep bass as they were, sounded like Beverly's voice whispering between his sobs, before he went to sleep.
Both men smiled and said nothing. But when I went to my bed again Jondo tucked the covers about me and Uncle Esmond came and bade me good night.
"I guess you have the makings of a plainsman," he said, with a smile, as he patted me on the head.
"The beginnings, anyhow," Jondo added. "He can see pretty far already."
For a long time I lay awake, thinking of all that Uncle Esmond and Jondo had said to me. It is no wonder that I remember that April day as if it were but yesterday. Such days come only to childhood, and oftentimes when no one of older years can see clearly enough to understand the bigness of their meaning to the child who lives through them.
All of my life I had heard stories of the East, of New York and St. Louis, where there were big houses and wonderful stores. And of Washington, where there was a President, and a Congress, and a strange power that could fill and empty Fort Leavenworth at will. I had heard of the Great Lakes, and of cotton-fields, and tobacco-plantations, and sugar-camps, and ships, and steam-cars. I had pictured these things a thousand times in my busy imagination and had longed to see them. But from that day they went out of my life-dreams. Henceforth I belonged to the prairies of the West. No one but myself took account of this, nor guessed that a life-trend had had its commencement in the small events of one unimportant day.
A DAUGHTER OF CANAAN
One stone the more swings to her place In that dread Temple of Thy worth; It is enough that through Thy grace I saw naught common on Thy earth.
The next morning I was wakened by the soft voice of Aunty Boone, our cook, saying:
"You better get up! Revilly blow over at the fort long time ago. Wonder it didn't blow your batter-cakes clear away. Mat and Beverly been up since 'fore sunup."
Aunty Boone was the biggest woman I have ever seen. Not the tallest, maybe—although she measured up to a height of six feet and two inches—not the fattest, but a woman with the biggest human frame, overlaid with steel-hard muscles. Yet she was not, in her way, clumsy or awkward. She walked with a free stride, and her every motion showed a powerful muscular control. Her face was jet-black, with keen shining eyes, and glittering white teeth. In my little child-world she was the strangest creature I had ever known. In the larger world whither the years of my manhood have led me she holds the same place.
She had been born a princess of royal blood, heir to a queenship in her tribe in a far-away African kingdom. In her young womanhood, so the tale ran, the slave-hunter had found her and driven her aboard a slave-ship bound for the American coast. He never drove another slave toward any coast. In Virginia her first purchaser had sold her quickly to a Georgia planter whose heirs sent her on to Mississippi. Thence she soon found her way to the Louisiana rice-fields. Nobody came to take her back to any place she had quitted. "Safety first," is not a recent practice. She had enormous strength and capacity for endurance, she learned rapidly, kept her own counsel, obeyed no command unless she chose to do so, and feared nothing in the Lord's universe. The people of her own race had little in common with her. They never understood her and so they feared her. And being as it were outcast by them, she came to know more of the ways and customs, and even the thoughts, of the white people better than of her own. Being quick to imitate, she spoke in the correcter language of those whom she knew best, rather than the soft, ungrammatical dialect of the plantation slave or the grunt and mumble of the isolated African. Realizing that service was to be her lot, she elected to render that service where and to whom she herself might choose.
One day she had walked into New Orleans and boarded a Mississippi steamer bound for St. Louis. It took three men to eject her bodily from the deck into a deep and dangerous portion of the stream. She swam ashore, and when the steamer made its next stop she walked aboard again. The three men being under the care of a physician, and the remainder of the crew burdened with other tasks, she was not again disturbed. Some time later she appeared at the landing below Fort Leavenworth, and strode up the slope to the deserted square where Esmond Clarenden stood before his little store alone in the deepening twilight.
I have heard that she had had a way of appearing suddenly, like a beast of prey, in the dusk of the evening, and that few men cared to meet her at that time alone.
My uncle was a snug-built man, sixty-two inches high, with small, shapely hands and feet. Towering above him stood this great, strange creature, barefooted, ragged, half tiger, half sphinx.
"I'm hungry. I'll eat or I kill. I'm nobody's slave!"
The soft voice was full of menace, the glare of famine and fury was in the burning eyes, and the supple cruelty of the wild beast was in the clenched hands.
Esmond Clarenden looked up at her with interest. Then pointing toward our house he said, calmly:
"Neither are you anybody's master. Go over there to the kitchen and get your supper. If you can cook good meals, I'll pay you well. If you can't, you'll leave here."
Possibly it was the first time in her strange and varied career that she had taken a command kindly, and obeyed because she must. And so the savage African princess, the terror of the terrible slave-ship, the untamed plantation scourge, with a record for deeds that belong to another age and social code, became the great, silent, faithful, fearless servant of the plains; with us, but never of us, in all the years that followed. But she fitted the condition of her day, and in her place she stood, where the beloved black mammy of a gentler mold would have fallen.
She announced that her name was Daniel Boone, which Uncle Esmond considered well enough for one of such a westward-roving nature. But Jondo declared that the "Daniel" belonged to her because, like unto the Bible Daniel, no lion, nor whole den of lions, would ever dine at her expense. To us she became Aunty Boone. With us she was always gentle—docile, rather; and one day we came to know her real measure, and—we never forgot her.
I bounced out of bed at her call this morning, and bounced my breakfast into a healthy, good-natured stomach. The sunny April of yesterday had whirled into a chilly rain, whipped along by a raw wind. The skies were black and all the spring verdure was turned to a sickish gray-green.
"Weather always fit the times," Aunty Boone commented as she heaped my plate with the fat buckwheat cakes that only she could ever turn off a griddle. "You packin' up for somepin' now. What you goin' to get is fo'casted in this here nasty day."
"Why, we are going away!" I cried, suddenly recalling the day before. "I wish, though, that Mat could go. Wouldn't you like to go, too, Aunty? Only, Bev says there's deserts, where there's just rocks and sand and everything, and no water sometimes. You and Mat couldn't stand that 'cause you are women-folks."
I stiffened with importance and clutched my knife and fork hard.
"Couldn't!" Aunty Boone gave a scornful grunt. "Women-folks stands double more 'n men. You'll see when you get older. I know about you freightin' off to Santy Fee. You don't know what desset is. You never see sand. You never feel what it is to want watah. Only folks 'cross the ocean in the real desset knows that. Whoo-ee!"
I remembered the weird tales she had told us of her girlhood—tales that had thrilled me with wonder—told sometimes in the twilight, sometimes by the kitchen fire on winter nights, sometimes on long, still, midsummer afternoons when the air quivered with heat and the Missouri hung about hot sand-bars, half asleep.
"What do you know about this trip, Aunty Boone?" I asked, eagerly; for although she could neither read nor write, she had a sponge-like absorbing power for keeping posted on all that happened at the fort.
"Cla'n'den"—the woman never called my uncle by any other name—"he's goin' to Santy Fee, an' you boys with him, 'cause—"
She paused and her shining eyes grew dull as they had a way of doing in her thoughtful or prophetic moments.
"He knows what for—him an' Jondo. One of 'em's storekeeper an' t'other a plainsman, but they tote together always—an' they totin' now. You can't see what, but they totin', they totin', just the same. Now run out to the store. Things is stirrin'. Things is stirrin'."
I bolted my cakes, sodden with maple syrup, drank my mug of milk, and hurried out toward the storehouse.
Fort Leavenworth in the middle '40's was sometimes an indolent place, and sometimes a very busy one, depending upon the activity of the Western frontier. On this raw April morning everything was fairly ajerk with life and motion. And I knew from child-experience that a body of soldiers must be coming up the river soon. Horses were rushed to-day where yesterday they had been leisurely led. Orders were shouted now that had been half sung a week ago. Military discipline took the place of fatigue attitudes. There was a banging of doors, a swinging of brooms, a clatter of tin, and a clanging of iron things. And everywhere went that slapping wind. And every shallow place in the ground held a chilly puddle. The government buildings always seemed big and bare and cold to me. And this morning they seemed drearier than ever, beaten upon by the fitful swish of the rain.
In contrast with these were my uncle's snug quarters, for warmth was a part of Esmond Clarenden's creed. I used to think that the little storeroom, filled with such things as a frontier fort could find use for, was the biggest emporium in America, and the owner thereof suffered nothing, in my eyes, in comparison with A.T. Stewart, the opulent New York merchant of his day.
As I ran, bareheaded and coatless, across the wide wet space between our home and the storehouse a soldier came dashing by on horseback. I dodged behind him only to fall sprawling in a slippery pool under the very feet of another horseman, riding swiftly toward the boat-landing.
Neither man paid any attention to me as I slowly picked myself up and started toward the store. The soldier had not seen me at all. The other man's face was dark, and he wore the dress of the Mexican. It was only by his alertness and skill that his horse missed me, but as he hurried away he gave no more heed to me than if I had been a stone in his path.
I had turned my ankle in the fall and I could only limp to the storehouse and drop down inside. I would not cry out, but I could not hold back the sobs as I tried to stand, and fell again in a heap at Jondo's feet.
"Things were stirrin'" there, as Aunty Boone had said, but withal there was no disorder. Esmond Clarenden never did business in that way. No loose ends flapped about his rigging, and when a piece of work was finished with him, there was nothing left to clear away. Bill Banney, the big grown-up boy from Kentucky, who, out of love of adventure, had recently come to the fort, was helping Jondo with the packing of certain goods. Mat and Beverly were perched on the counter, watching all that was being done and hearing all that was said.
"What's the matter, little plainsman?" Jondo cried, catching me up and setting me on the counter. "Got a thorn in your shoe, or a stone-bruise, or a chilblain?"
"I slipped out there behind a soldier on horseback, right in front of a little old Mexican who was just whirling off to the river," I said, the tears blinding my eyes.
"Why, he's turned his ankle! Looks like it was swelling already," Mat Nivers declared, as she slid from the counter and ran toward me.
"It's a bad job," Jondo declared. "Just when we want to get off, too."
"Can't I go with you to Santa Fe, Uncle Esmond?" I wailed.
"Yes, Gail, we'll fix you up all right," my uncle said, but his face was grave as he examined my ankle.
It was a bad job, much worse than any of us had thought at first. And as they all gathered round me I suddenly noticed the same Mexican standing in the doorway, and I heard some one, I think it was Uncle Esmond, say:
"Jondo, you'd better take Gail over to the surgeon right away—" His voice trailed off somewhere and all was blank nothingness to me. But my last impression was that my uncle stayed behind with the strange Mexican.
In the excitement everybody forgot that I had on neither hat nor coat as they carried me through the raw wet air to the army surgeon's quarters beyond the soldiers' barracks.
A chill and fever followed, and for a week there was only pain and trouble for me. Nothing else hurt quite so deeply, however, as the fear of being left behind when the Clarendens should start for Santa Fe. I would ask no questions, and nobody mentioned the trip, for which everything was preparing. I began at last to have a dread of being left in the night, of wakening some morning to find only Mat and myself with Aunty Boone in the little log house. Uncle Esmond had already been away for three days, but nobody told me where he had gone, nor why he went, nor when he would come back. It kept me awake at night, and the loss of sleep made me nervous and feverish.
One afternoon about a week after my accident, when Beverly and Mat were putting the room in order and chattering like a couple of squirrels, Beverly said, carelessly:
"Gail, it's been a half a week since Uncle Esmond went down to our other store in Independence, and we are going to start on our trip just as soon as he gets back, unless he sends for me and Jondo."
I knew that he was trying to tell me that they meant to go without me, for he hurried out with the last words. No boy wants to talk to a disappointed boy, and I had to clinch my teeth hard to keep back the tears.
"I want to get well quicker, Mat. I want to go to Santa Fe with Beverly," I wailed, making a desperate effort to get out of bed.
"You cuddle right down there, Gail Clarenden, if you want to get well at all. If you're real careful you'll be all right in a day or two. Let's wait for Uncle Esmond to come home before we start any worries."
It was in her voice, girl or woman, that comforting note that could always soothe me.
"Mat, won't you try to get them to let me go?" I pleaded.
She made no promises, but busied herself with getting my foot into its place again, singing softly to herself all the while. Then she read me stories from our few story-books till I fell asleep.
It was twilight when I wakened. Where I lay I could hear Esmond Clarenden and Aunty Boone talking in the kitchen, and I listened eagerly to all they said.
"But it's no place for a woman," my uncle was urging, gravely.
"I ain't a woman, I'm a cook. You want cooks if you eats. Mat ain't a woman, she's a girl. But she's stronger 'n Beverly. If you can't leave him, how can you leave her? An' Gail never get well if he's left here, Cla'n'den, now he's got the goin' fever. Never! An' if you never got back—"
"I don't believe he would get well, either." Then Uncle Esmond spoke lower and I could not hear any more.
Pretty soon Mat and Beverly burst open the door and came dancing in together, the sweet air of the warm April evening coming in with them, and life grew rose-colored for me in a moment.
"We are all going to Santa Fe over the long trail. Every last gun of us. Aunty Boone, and Mat, and you, and me, and Jondo, and Uncle Esmond, rag-tag and bobtail. Whoop-ee-diddle-dee!" Beverly threw up his cap, and, catching Mat by the arms, they whirled around the room together.
"Who says so, Bev?" I asked, eagerly.
"Them as knows and bosses everything in this world. Jondo told me, and he's just the boss's shadow. Now guess who," Beverly replied.
"It's all true, Gail," Mat assured me. "Esmond Clarenden is going to Santa Fe in spite of 'war, pestilence, famine, and sword,' as my History of the World says, and he is going to take son Beverly, and son Gail to watch son Beverly; and Miss Mat Nivers to watch both of them and shoo Indians away; and Aunt Daniel Boone to scare the Mexicans into the Gulf of California, if they act ugly, see!"
She capered about the room, and as she passed me she stooped and patted me on the forehead. I didn't want her to do that. I had taken a long jump away from little-boy-dom a week ago, but I was supremely content now that all of us were to take the long trail together.
That evening while Mat and Beverly went to look after some fishing-lines they had set—Mat and Bev were always going fishing—and Jondo was down at the store, the officer in command of the fort came in. He paid no attention to me lying there, all eyes and ears whenever shoulder-straps were present.
"What did you decide to do about the trip to Santa Fe?" he asked, as he tipped back in his chair and settled down to cigars and an evening chat.
"We shall be leaving on the boat in the morning," my uncle replied.
The colonel's chair came down with a crack. "You don't mean it!" he exclaimed.
"I told you a week ago that I would be starting as soon as possible," Esmond Clarenden said, quietly.
"But, man, the war is raging, simply raging, down in Mexico right now. Our division will be here to commence drill in a few weeks, and we start for the border in a few months. You are mad to take such a risk." The commander's voice rose.
"We must go, that's all!" my uncle insisted.
"We? We? Who the devil are 'we'? None of my companies mutinied, I hope."
The words did not sound like a joke, and there was little humor in the grim face.
"'We' means Jondo, Banney, a young fellow from Kentucky—" Uncle Esmond began.
"Humph! Banney's father carried a gun at Fort Dearborn in 1812. I thought that young fellow came here for military service," the colonel commented, testily.
"Rather say he came for adventure," Esmond Clarenden suggested.
"He'll get a deuced lot of it in a hurry, if you persuade him off with you."
A flush swept over Esmond Clarenden's face, but his good-natured smile did not fail as he replied:
"I don't persuade anybody. The rest of the company are my two nephews and the little girl, my ward, with our cook, Daniel Boone, as commander-in-chief of the pots and pans and any Indian meat foolish enough to fall in her way."
Then came the explosion. Powder would have cost less than the energy blown off there. The colonel stamped and swore, and sprang to his feet in opposition, and flung himself down in disgust.
"Women and children!" he gasped. "Why do you sacrifice helpless innocent ones?"
Just then Aunty Boone strode in carrying a log of wood as big as a man's body, which she deftly threw on the fire. As the flame blazed high she gave one look at the young officer sitting before it, and then walked out as silently and sturdily as she had entered. It was such a look as a Great Dane dog full of superiority and indifference might have given to a terrier puppy, and from where I lay I thought the military man's face took on a very strange expression.
"I 'sacrifice my innocent ones,'" my uncle answered the query, "because they will be safer with me than anywhere else. Young as they are, there are some forces against them already."
"Well, you are going to a perilous place, over a most perilous trail, in a most perilous time of national affairs, to meet such treacherously villainous men as New Mexico offers in her market-places right now? And all for the sake of the commerce of the plains? Why do you take such chances to do business with such people, Clarenden?"
Esmond Clarenden had been staring at the burning logs in the big fireplace during this conversation. He turned now and faced the young army officer squarely as he said in that level tone that we children had learned long ago was final:
"Colonel, I'd go straight to hell and do business with the devil himself if I had any business dealings with him."
The colonel's face fell. Slowly he relighted his cigar, and leaned back again in his chair, and with that diplomacy that covers a skilful retreat he said, smilingly:
"If any man west of the Missouri River ever could do that it would be you, Clarenden. By the holy Jerusalem, the military lost one grand commander when you chose a college instead of West Point, and the East lost one well-bred gentleman from its circles of commerce and culture when you elected to do business on the old Santa Fe Trail instead of Broadway. But I reckon the West will need just such men as you long after the frontier fort has become a central point in the country's civilized area. And, blast you, Clarenden, blast your very picture! No man can help liking you. Not even the devil if he had the chance. Not one man in ten thousand would dare to make that trip right now. You've got the courage of a colonel and the judgment of a judge. Go to Santa Fe! We may meet you coming back. If we do, and you need us, command us!"
He gave a courteous salute, and the two began to talk of other things; among them the purposes that were bringing young men westward.
"So Banney, right out of old blue-grassy Kentucky, is going to back out of here and go with you," the colonel remarked.
"I've hired him to drive one team. It's a lark for him, but the army would be a lark just the same," Esmond Clarenden declared. "He says he is to kill rattlesnakes and Mexicans, while Jondo kills Indians and I sit tight on top of the bales of goods to keep the wind from blowing them away. And the boys are to be made bridle-wise, plains-broke for future freighting. That's all that life means to him right now."
I do not know what else was said, nor what I heard and what I dreamed after that. If this journey meant a lark to a grown-up boy, it meant a pilgrimage through fairyland to a young boy like myself.
And so the new life opened to us; and if the way was fraught with hardship and danger, it also taught us courage and endurance. Nor must we be measured by the boy life of to-day. Children lived the grown-up life then. It was all there was for them to live.
The yellow Missouri boiled endlessly along by the foot of the bluff. The flag flapped broadly in the strong breeze that blew in from the west; the square log house—the only home we had ever known—looked forlornly after us, with its two front windows with blinds half drawn, like two half-closed, watching eyes; the cottonwoods and elms, the tiny storehouse—everything—grew suddenly very dear to us. The fort buildings throwing long shadows in the early morning, the level-topped forests east of the Missouri River, and the budding woodland that overdraped the ravines to the west, even in their silence, seemed like sentient things, loving us, as we loved them.
We children had gone all over the place before sunrise and touched everything, in token of good-by; from some instinct tarrying longest at the flagpole, where we threw kisses to the great, beautiful banner high above us. Now, at the moment of leaving all these familiar things of all our years, a choking pain came to our throats. Mat's eyes filled with tears and she looked resolutely forward. Beverly and I clutched hands and shut our teeth together, determined to overcome this home-grip on our hearts. Aunty Boone sat in a corner of the deck as the boat swung out into the stream, her eyes dull and unseeing. She never spoke of her thoughts, but I have wondered often, since that big day of my young years, if she might not have recalled other voyages: the slave-ship putting out to sea with the African shores fading behind her; and the big river steamer at the New Orleans dock where brutal hands had hurled her from the deck into the dangerous floods of the Mississippi. This was her third voyage, a brief run from Fort Leavenworth to Independence. She was apart from her fellow-passengers as in the other two, but now nobody gave her a curse, nor a blow.
THE WIDENING HORIZON
Whose furthest footsteps never strayed Beyond the village of his birth, Is but a lodger for the night In this old Wayside Inn of Earth.
The broad green prairies of the West roll back in huge billows from the Missouri bluffs, and ripple gently on, to melt at last into the level grassy plains sloping away to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Up and down these land-waves, and across these ripples, the old Santa Fe Trail, the slender pathway of a wilderness-bridging commerce, led out toward the great Southwest—a thousand weary miles—to end at last, where the narrow thoroughfare reached the primitive hostelry at the corner of the plaza in the heart of the capital of a Spanish-Mexican demesne.
It was a strange old highway, tying the western frontier of a new, self-reliant American civilization to the eastern limit of an autocratic European offshoot, grafted upon an ancient Indian stock of the Western Hemisphere. In language, nationality, social code, political faith, and prevailing spiritual creed, the terminals of this highway were as unlike as their geographical naming. For the trail began at Independence, in Missouri, and ended at Santa Fe, the "City of the Holy Faith," in New Mexico.
The little trading town of Independence was a busy place in the frontier years of the Middle West. Ungentle and unlovely as it was, it was the great gateway between the river traffic on the one side, and the plains commerce of the far Southwest on the other. At the wharf at Westport, only a few miles away, the steamers left their cargoes of flour and bacon, coffee and calicoes, jewelry and sugar—whatever might have a market value to merchants beyond the desert lands. And here these same steamers took on furs, and silver bullion, and such other produce of the mountains and mines and open plains as the opulently laden caravans had toiled through long days, overland, to bring to the river's wharf.
To-day the same old gateway stands as of yore. But it may be given only to men who have seen what I have seen, to know how that our Kansas City, the Beautiful, could grow up from that old wilderness outpost of commerce threescore and more years ago.
The Clarenden store was the busiest spot in the center of this busy little town. Goods from both lines of trade entered and cleared here. In front of the building three Conestoga wagons with stout mule teams stood ready. A fourth wagon, the Dearborn carriage of that time, filled mostly with bedding, clothing, and the few luxuries a long camping-out journey may indulge in, waited only for a team, and we would be off to the plains.
Jondo and Bill Banney were busy with the last things to be done before we started. Aunty Boone sat on a pile of pelts inside the store, smoking her pipe. Beverly and Mat stood waiting in the big doorway, while I sat on a barrel outside, because my ankle was still a bit stiff. A crowd had gathered before the store to see us off. It was not such a company as the soldier-men at the fort. The outlaw, the loafer, the drunkard, the ruffian, the gambler, and the trickster far outnumbered the stern-faced men of affairs. When the balance turns the other way the frontier disappears. Mingling with these was a pale-faced invalid now and then, with the well-appointed new arrivals from the East.
"What are we waiting for, Bev?" I asked, as the street filled with men.
"Got to get another span of moolies for our baby-cart. Uncle Esmond hadn't counted on the nurse and the cook going, you know, but he rigged this littler wagon out in a twinkle."
"That's the family carriage, drawn by spirited steeds. Us children are to ride in it, with Daniel Boone to help with the driving," Mat added.
Just then Esmond Clarenden appeared at the door.
"How soon do you start, Clarenden?" some one in the crowd inquired.
"Just as soon as I can get a pair of well-broken mules," he replied. "I'm looking for the man who has them to sell quick. I'm in a hurry."
"What's your great rush?" a well-dressed stranger asked. "They tell me things look squally out West."
"All the more reason for my being in a hurry then," Uncle Esmond returned.
"They ain't but three men of you, is they? What do you want of more mules?" put in an inquisitive idler of the trouble-loving class who sooner or later turn arguments into bitter brawls.
"These three children and the cook in there have this wagon. They are all fair drivers, if I can get the right mules," my uncle said.
Women and children did not cross the plains in those days, nor could public welfare allow that so valuable a piece of property as Aunty Boone would be in the slave-market should be lost to commerce, and the storm of protest that followed would have overcome a less determined man. It was not on account of sympathy for the weak and defenseless that called out all this abuse, but the lawless spirit that stirs up a mob on the slightest excuse.
I slid away to the door, where, with Mat and Beverly, I watched Esmond Clarenden, who was listening with his good-natured smile to all of that loud street talk.
"No man's life is insurable in these troublesome times, with our troops right now down in Mexico," a suave Southern trader urged. "Better sell your slave and put that nice little gal in a boardin'-school somewhere in the South."
"I'll give you a mighty good bargain for that wench, Clarenden. She might be worth a clare fortune in New Orleans. What d'ye say to a cool thousand?" another man declared, with a slow. Southern drawl.
Aunty Boone took the pipe from her lips and looked at the stranger.
"Y'would!" she grunted, stretching her big right hand across her lap, like a huge paw with claws ready underneath.
"Them plains Injuns never was more hostile than they air right now. I just got in from the mountains an' I know. An' they're bein' set on by more hostile Mexican devils, and political intrigs," a bearded mountaineer trapper argued.
"'Sides all that," interposed the suave Southern gentleman, "it's too early in the spring. Freightin's bound to be delayed by rains—and a nice little gal with only a nigger—" He was not quite himself, and he did not try to say more.
"Seems like some of these gentlemen consider you are some sort of a fool," a tall, lean Yankee youth observed, as he listened to the babble.
I had climbed back on the barrel again to see the crowd better, and I stared at the last speaker. His voice was not unpleasant, but he appeared pale and weak and spiritless in that company of tanned, rugged men. Evidently he was an invalid in search of health. We children had seen many invalids, from time to time, at the fort harmless folk, who came to fuss, and stayed to flourish, in our gracious land of the open air.
"You are a dam' fool," roared a big drunken loafer from the edge of the crowd. "An' I'd lick you in a minnit if you das step into the middle of the street onct. Ornery sneak, to take innocent children into such perils. Come on out here, I tell ye!"
A growl followed these words. Many men in that company were less than half sober, and utterly irresponsible.
"Le's jes' hang the fool storekeepin' gent right now; an' make a free-fur-all holiday. I'll begin," the drunken ruffian bawled. He was of the sort that always leads a mob.
The growl deepened, for blood-lust and drunkenness go together.
Terrified for my uncle's safety, I stood breathless, staring at the evil-faced crowd of men going suddenly mad, without excuse. At the farthest edge of the insipient mob, sitting on his horse and watching my uncle's face intently, was the very Mexican whom I had twice seen at Fort Leavenworth. At the drunken rowdy's challenge, I thought that he half-lifted a threatening hand. But Esmond Clarenden only smiled, with a mere turn of his head as if in disapproval. In that minute I learned my first lesson in handling ruffians. I knew that my uncle was not afraid, and because of that my faith in his power to take care of himself came back.
"I want to leave here in half an hour. If you have any good plains-broke mules you will sell for cash, I can do business with you right now. If not, the sooner you leave this place the better."
He lifted his small, shapely hand unclenched, his good-natured smile and gentlemanly bearing unchanged, but his low voice was stronger than all the growls of the crowd that fell back like whipped dogs.
As he spoke a horse-dealer, seeing the gathering before the store, came galloping up.
"I'm your man. Money talks so I can understand it. Wait five minutes and ten seconds and I'll bring a whole strand of mules."
A rattling of wagons and roar of voices at the far end of the street told of the arrival of a company coming in from the wharf at Westport, and the crowd whirled about and made haste toward the next scene of interest.
Only two men remained behind, the tall New England youth and the Mexican on the farther side of the street sitting motionless on his horse. A moment later he was gone, and the street was empty save for the pale-faced invalid who had come over to the doorway where Mat and Beverly and I waited together.
"Why don't you youngsters stay home with your mother, or is she going with you?" he asked, a gleam of interest lighting his dull face as he looked at Mat Nivers.
"We haven't any of us got a mother," Mat replied, timidly, lifting her gray eyes to his.
"Mother! Ain't you all one family?" the young man questioned in surprise.
"No, we are three orphan children that Uncle Esmond has adopted all our lives, I guess." Beverly informed him.
A wave of sympathy swept over his face.
"You poor, lonely, unhappy cubs! You've never had a mother to love you!" he exclaimed, in kindly pity.
"We aren't poor nor lonely nor unhappy. We have always had Uncle Esmond and we didn't need a mother," I exclaimed, earnestly.
The young man stared at me as I spoke. "What's he, a bachelor or married man?" he inquired.
"He couldn't be married and keep us, I reckon, and he's taking us with him so nothing will happen to us while he's gone. He's really truly Bev's uncle and mine, but he's just the same as uncle to Mat, who hasn't anybody else," I declared, enthusiastically. Uncle Esmond was my pride, and I meant that he should be fully appreciated.
The Yankee gazed at all three of us, his eyes resting longest on Mat's bright face. The listlessness left his own that minute and a new light shone on his countenance. But when he turned to my uncle the seeming lack of all interest in living returned to his face again.
"Say," he drawled, looking down at the stubborn little merchant from his slim six feet of altitude, "you are such a dam' fool as our friend, the tipsy one, says, that I believe I'll go along 'cross the plains with you, if you'll let me. I've not got a darned thing to lose out there but a sick carcass that I'm pretty tired of looking after," he went on, wearily. "I reckon I might as well see the fun through if I never set a hoof on old Plymouth Rock again. My granddaddy was a minute-man at Lexington. Say"—he paused, and his sober face turned sad—"if all the bean-eaters who claim their grandpas were minute-men tell the truth, there wasn't no glory in winning at Lexington, there was such a tremendous sight of 'em. I've heard about eight million men myself make the same claim. But my granddad was the real article in the minute-men business. And I've always admired his grit most of any man in the world. He was about your shape, I reckon, from his picture that old man Copley got out. But, man! he wasn't a patchin' on your coat-sleeve. You are the preposterous-est unlawful-est infamous-est man I ever saw. It's just straight murder and suicide you are bent on, takin' this awful chance of plungin' into a warrin', snake-eatin' country like New Mexico, and I like you for it. Will you take me as an added burden? If you will, I'll deposit the price of my state-room right now. I've got only a little wad of money to get well on or die on. I can spend it either way—not much difference which. My name is Krane, Rex Krane, and in spite of such a floopsy name I hail from Boston, U.S.A."
There was a hopeless sagging about the young man's mouth, redeemed only by the twinkle in his eye.
Esmond Clarenden gave him a steady measuring look. He estimated men easily, and rarely failed to estimate truly.
"I'll take you on your face value," he answered, "and if you want to turn back there will be a chance to do it out a hundred miles or more on the trail. You can try it that far and see how you like it. I'll furnish you your board. There are always plenty of bedrooms on the ground floor and in one of the wagons on rainy nights. You can take a shift driving a team now and then, and every able-bodied man has to do guard duty some of the time. You understand the dangers of the situation by this time. Here comes my man," he added, as the horse-dealer appeared, leading a string of mules up the street.
"Here's your critters. Take your choice," the dealer urged.
"I'll take the brown one," my uncle replied, promptly. And the bargain was closed.
Mat and Beverly and I had already climbed into our wagon, and Aunty Boone appeared now at the store door, ready to join us.
"You takin' that nigger?" the trader asked.
"Yes. Lead out your best offer now. I want another mule," Esmond Clarenden replied.
But the horse-merchant proved to be harder to deal with than the crowd had been. The foolish risk of losing so valuable a piece of property as Daniel Boone ought to be in the slave-market taxed his powers of understanding, profanity, and abuse.
"Cussin' solid, an' in streaks," Aunty Boone chuckled, softly, as she listened to him unmoved.
Equally unmoved was Esmond Clarenden. But his genial smile and diplomatic power of keeping still did not prevent him from being as set as the everlasting hills in his own purpose.
"This here critter is all I'll sell you," the trader declared at last, pulling a big white-eyed dun animal out of the group. "An' nobody's goin' to drive her easy."
"I'll take it," Uncle Esmond said, promptly, and the vicious-looking beast was brought to where Aunty Boone stood beside the wagon-tongue.
It was a clear case of hate at first sight, for the mule began to plunge and squeal the instant it saw her. The woman hesitated not a minute, but lifting her big ham-like foot, she gave it one broadside kick that it must have mistaken for a thunderbolt, and in that low purr of hers, that might frighten a jungle tiger, she laid down the law of the journey.
"You tote me to Santy Fee, or be a dead mule. Take yo' choice right now! Git up!"
For fifty days the one dependable, docile servant of the Clarendens was the big dun mule, as gentle and kitten-like as a mule can be.
And so, in spite of opposing conditions and rabble protest and doleful prophecy and the assurance of certain perils, we turned our faces toward the unfriendly land of the sunset skies, the open West of my childish day-dreams.
* * * * *
The prairies were splashed with showers and the warm black soil was fecund with growths as our little company followed the windings of the old trail in that wondrous springtime of my own life's spring. There were eight of us: Clarenden, the merchant; Jondo, the big plainsman; Bill Banney, whom love of adventure had lured from the blue grass of Kentucky to the prairie-grass of the West; Rex Krane, the devil-may-care invalid from Boston; and the quartet of us in the "baby cab," as Beverly had christened the family wagon. Uncle Esmond had added three swift ponies to our equipment, which Jondo and Bill found time to tame for riding as we went along.
We met wagon-trains, scouts, and solitary trappers going east, but so far as we knew our little company was the only westward-facing one on all the big prairies.
"It's just like living in a fairy-story, isn't it, Gail?" Beverly said to me one evening, as we rounded a low hill and followed a deep little creek down to a shallow fording-place. "All we want is a real princess and a real giant. Look at these big trees all you can, for Jondo says pretty soon we won't see trees at all."
"Maybe we'll have Indians instead of giants," I suggested. "When do you suppose we'll begin to see the real bad Indians; not just Osages and Kaws and sneaky little Otoes and Pot'wat'mies like we've seen all our lives?"
"Sooner than we expect," Beverly replied. "Could Mat Nivers ever be a real princess, do you reckon?"
"I know she won't," I said, firmly, the vision of that fateful day at Fort Leavenworth coming back as I spoke—the vision of level green prairies, with gray rocks and misty mountain peaks beyond. And somewhere, between green prairies and misty peaks, a sweet child face with big dark eyes looking straight into mine. I must have been a dreamer. And in my young years I wondered often why things should be so real to me that nobody else could ever understand.
"I used to think long ago at the fort that I'd marry Mat some day," Beverly said, reminiscently, as if he were looking across a lapse of years instead of days.
"So did I," I declared. "But I don't want to now. Maybe our princess will be at the end of the trail, Bev, a real princess. Still, I love Mat just as if she were my sister," I hastened to add.
"So do I," Beverly responded, heartily.
A little grain of pity for her loss of prestige was mingling with our subconscious feeling of a need for her help in the day of the giant, if not in the reign of the princess.
We were trudging along behind our wagon toward the camping-place for the night, which lay beyond the crossing of the stream. We had lived much out of doors at Fort Leavenworth, but the real out of doors of this journey was telling on us already in our sturdy, up-leaping strength, to match each new hardship. We ate like wolves, slept like dead things, and forgot what it meant to be tired. And as our muscles hardened our minds expanded. We were no longer little children. Youth had set its seal upon us on the day when our company had started out from Independence toward the great plains of the Middle West. Little care had we for the responsibility and perils of such a journey; and because our thoughts were buoyant our bodies were vigorous.
Our camp that night was under wide-spreading elm-trees whose roots struck deep in the deep black loam. After supper Mat and Beverly went down to fish in the muddy creek. Fishing was Beverly's sport and solace everywhere. I was to follow them as soon as I had finished my little chores. The men were scattered about the valley and the camp was deserted. Something in the woodsy greenness of the quiet spot made it seem like home to me—the log house among the elms and cottonwoods at the fort. As I finished my task I wondered how a big, fine house such as I had seen in pictures would look nestled among these beautiful trees. I wanted a home here some day, a real home. It was such a pleasant place even in its loneliness.
To the west the ground sloped up gently toward the horizon-line, shutting off the track of the trail beyond the ridge. A sudden longing came over me to see what to-morrow's journey would offer, bringing back the sense of being shut in that had made me lose interest in fishes that wouldn't play leap-frog on the sand-bars. And with it came a longing to be alone.
Instead of following Mat and Beverly to the creek I went out to the top of the swell and stood long in the April twilight, looking beyond the rim of the valley toward the darkening prairies with the great splendor of the sunset's afterglow deepening to richest crimson above the purpling shadows.
Oh, many a time since that night have I looked upon the Kansas plains and watched the grandeur of coloring that only the Almighty artist ever paints for human eyes. And always I come back, in memory, to that April evening. The soul of a man must have looked out through the little boy's eyes on that night, and a new mile-stone was set there, making a landmark in my life trail. For when I turned toward the darkening east and the shadowy camp where the evening fires gleamed redly in the dusk, I knew then, as well as I know now, if I could only have put it into words, that I was not the same little boy who had run up the long slope to see what lay next in to-morrow's journey.
I walked slowly back to the camp and sat down beside Esmond Clarenden.
"What are you thinking about, Gail?" he asked, as I stared at the fire.
"I wish I knew what would happen next," I replied.
Jondo was lying at full length on the grass, his elbow bent, and his hand supporting his head. What a wonderful head it was with its crown of softly curling brown hair!
"I wonder if we have done wrong by the children, Clarenden," the big plainsman said, slowly.
Uncle Esmond shook his head as he replied:
"I can't believe it. They may not be safe with us, but we know they would not have been safe without us."
Just then Beverly and Mat came racing up from the creek bank.
"Let us stay up awhile," Mat pleaded. "Maybe we'll be less trouble some of these days if we hear you talk about what's coming."
"They are right, Jondo. Gail here wants to know what is coming next, and Mat wants a share in our councils. What do you want, Beverly?"
"I want to practise shooting on horseback. I can hit a mark now standing still. I want to do it on the run," Beverly replied.
I can see now the earnest look in Esmond Clarenden's eyes as he listened. I've seen it in a mother's eyes more than once since then, as she kissed her eldest-born and watched it toddle off alone on its first day of school; or held her peace, when, breaking home ties, the son of her heart bade her good-by to begin life for himself in the world outside.
The last light of day was lost over the western ridge. The moon was beginning to swell big and yellow through the trees. Twilight was darkening into night. Bill Banney and Rex Krane had joined us now, for every hour we were learning to keep closer together. Jondo threw more wood on the fire, and we nestled about it in snug, homey fashion as if we were to listen to a fairy-tale—three children slipping fast out of childhood into the stern, hard plains life that tried men's souls. As we listened, the older men told of the perils as well as the fascinating adventures of trail life, that we might understand what lay before us in the unknown days. And then they told us stories of the plains, and of the quaint historic things of Santa Fe; of El Palacio, home of all the Governors of New Mexico; an Indian pueblo first, it may have been standing there when William the Norman conquered Harold of the Saxon dynasty of England; or further back when Charlemagne was hanging heathen by the great great gross to make good Christians of them; or even when old Julius Caesar came and saw and conquered, on either side of the Rubicon, this same old structure may have sheltered rulers in a world unknown. They told us of the old, old church of San Miguel, a citadel for safety from the savage foes of Spain, a sanctuary ever for the sinful and sorrowing ones. And of the Plaza—sacred ground whereon by ceremonial form had been established deeds that should change the destinies of tribes and shape the trend of national pride and power in a new continent. And of La Garita, place of execution, facing whose blind wall the victims of the Spanish rule made their last stand, and, helpless, fell pierced by the bullets of the Spanish soldiery.
And we children looked into the dying camp-fire and builded there our own castles in Spain, and hoped that that old flag to which we had thrown good-by kisses such a little while ago would one day really wave above old Santa Fe and make it ours to keep. For, young as we were, the flag already symbolized to us the protecting power of a nation strong and gentle and generous.
"The first and last law of the trail is to 'hold fast,'" Jondo said, as we broke up the circle about the camp-fire.
"If you can keep that law we will take you into full partnership to-night," Esmond Clarenden added, and we knew that he meant what he said.
THE MAN IN THE DARK
A stone's throw from either hand, From that well-ordered road we tread, And all the world is wide and strange. —KIPLING
"We shall come to the parting of the ways to night if we make good time, Krane," Esmond Clarenden said to the young Bostonian, as we rested at noon beside the trait. "To-night we camp at Council Grove and from there on there is no turning back. I had hoped to find a big crowd waiting to start off from that place. But everybody we have met coming in says that there are no freighters going west now. Usually there is no risk in coming alone from Council Grove to the Missouri River, and there is always opportunity for company at this end of the trail."
We were sitting in a circle under the thin shade of some cottonwood-trees beside a little stream; the air of noon, hot above our heads, was tempered with a light breeze from the southwest. As my uncle spoke, Rex glanced over at Mat Nivers, sitting beside him, and then gazed out thoughtfully across the stream. I had never thought her pretty before. But now her face, tanned by the sun and wind, had a richer glow on cheek and lip. Her damp hair lay in little wavelets about her temples, and her big, sunny, gray eyes were always her best feature.
Girls made their own dresses on the frontier, and I suppose that anywhere else Mat would have appeared old-fashioned in the neat, comfortable little gowns of durable gingham and soft woolen stuffs that she made for herself. But somehow in all that long journey she was the least travel-soiled of the whole party.
At my uncle's words she looked up questioningly and I saw the bloom deepen on her cheek as she met the young man's eyes. Somebody else saw that shadow of a blush—Bill Banney lying on the ground beside me, and although he pulled his hat cautiously over his face, I thought he was listening for the answer.
The young New-Englander stared long at the green prairie before he spoke. I never knew whether it was ignorance, or a lack of energy, that was responsible for his bad grammar in those early days, for Rex Krane was no sham invalid. The lines on his young face told of suffering, and the thin, bony hands showed bodily weakness. At length he turned to my uncle.
"I started out sort of reckless on this trip," he said, slowly. "I'm nearly twenty and never been worth a dang to anybody anywhere on God's earth; so I thought I might as well be where things looked interestin'. But"—he hesitated—"I'm gettin' a lot stronger every day, a whole lot stronger. Mebby I'd be of some use afterwhile—I don't know, though. I reckon I'd better wait till we get to that Council Grove place. Sounds like a nice locality to rest and think in. Are you goin' on, anyhow, Clarenden, crowd or no crowd?"
"Though the heavens fall," my uncle answered, simply.
Jondo had turned quickly to hear this reply and a great light leaped into his deep-set blue eyes. I glanced over at Aunty Boone, sitting apart from us, as she ever chose to do, her own eyes dull, as they always were when she saw keenest; and I remembered how, back at Fort Leavenworth, she had commented on this journey, saying: "They tote together always, an' they're totin' now." Child though I was, I felt that a something more than the cargo of goods was leading my uncle to Santa Fe. What I did not understand was his motive for taking Beverly and Mat and me with him. I had been satisfied before just to go, but now I wanted very much to know why I was going.
Council Grove by the Neosho River was the end of civilization for the freighter. Beyond it the wilderness spread its untamed lengths, and excepting Bent's Fort far up the Arkansas River on the line of the first old trail, rarely followed now, it held not a sign of civilization for the traveler until he should reach the first outposts of the Mexican almost in the shadow of Santa Fe. It is no wonder that wagon-trains mobilized here, waiting for an increase in numbers before they dared to start on westward. And now there were no trains waiting for our coming. Only a gripping necessity could have led a man like Esmond Clarenden to take the trail alone in the certain perils of the plains during the middle '40's. I did not know until long afterward how brave was the loving heart that beat in that little merchant's bosom. A devotee of ease and refinement, he walked the prairie trails unafraid, and made the desert serve his will.
The dusk of evening had fallen long before we pitched camp that night under the big oak-trees in the Neosho River valley outside of the little trading-post. Up in the village a light or two gleamed faintly. From somewhere in the darkness came the sound of a violin, mingling with loud talking and boisterous laughter in a distant drinking-den. It would be some time until moon-rise, and the shadowy places thickened to blackness.
In fair weather all of us except Mat Nivers slept in the open. On stormy nights the younger men occupied one of the wagons, Jondo and Beverly another, and my uncle and myself the third. Mat had the "baby-cab" as Beverly called it, with Aunty Boone underneath it. The ground was Aunty Boone's kingdom. She sat upon it, ate from it, slept on it, and seemed no more soiled than a snake would be by the contact with it.
"Some day I goes plop under it, and be ground myself," she used to say. "Good black soil I make, too," she always added, with her low chuckle.
To-night we were all in the wagons, for the spring rains had made the Neosho valley damp and muddy. I was just on the edge of dreamless slumber when a low voice that seemed to cut the darkness caught my ear.
"Cla'nden! Cla'nden!" it hissed, softly.
My uncle slipped noiselessly out to where Aunty Boone stood, her head so near to the canvas wagon-cover inside of which I lay that I could hear all that was said.
She was always a night prowler. What other women learn now from the evening newspaper or from neighborly gossip she, being created without a sense of fear, went forth in her time and gathered at first hand.
"I been prospectin' up 'round the saloon, Cla'nden. They's a nasty mess of Mexicans in town, all gettin' drunk."
Then I heard a faint rustle of the bushes and I knew that the woman was slipping away to her place under the wagon. I remembered the Mexican whom I had last seen across the street from the Clarenden store in Independence. These were bad Mexicans, as Aunty Boone had said, and that man had seemed in a silent way a friend of my uncle. I wondered what would happen next. It soon happened. My uncle Esmond came inside the wagon and called, softly:
"Gail, wake up."
"I'm awake," I replied, in a half-whisper, as alert as a mystery-loving boy could be.
"Slip over to Jondo and tell him there are Mexicans in town, and I'm going across the river to see what's up. Tell him to wake up everybody and have them stay in the wagons till I get back."
He slid away and the shadows ate him. I followed as far as Jondo's wagon, and gave my message. As I came back something seemed to slip away before me and disappear somewhere. I dived into our wagon and crouched down, waiting with beating heart for Uncle Esmond to come back. Once I thought I heard the sound of a horse's feet on the trail to the eastward, but I was not sure.
All was still and black in the little camp for a long time, and then Esmond Clarenden and Rex Krane crept into the wagon and dropped the flap behind them.
"Krane, have you decided about this trip yet?" Uncle Esmond asked. "If not, you'd better get right up into town and forget us. You can't be too quick about it, either."
"Ain't we going to stay here a few days? Why do you want to know to-night?"
Rex Krane, Yankee-like, met the query with a query.
"Because there's a pretty strong party of Mexican desperadoes here who are going on east, and they mean trouble for somebody. I shouldn't care to meet them with our strength alone. They are all pretty drunk now and getting wilder every minute. Listen to that!"
A yell across the river broke the night stillness.
"There is no telling how soon they may be over here, hunting for us. We must get by them some way, for I cannot risk a fight with them here. Which chance will you choose, the possibility of being overtaken by that Mexican gang going east, or the perils of the plains and the hostility of New Mexico right now? It's about as broad one way as the other for safety, with staying here for a time as the only middle course at present. But that is a perfectly safe one for you."
"I am going on with you," Rex Krane said, with his slow Yankee drawl. "When danger gets close, then I scatter. There's more chance in seven hundred miles to miss somethin' than there is in a hundred and fifty. And even a half-invalid might be of some use. Say, Clarenden, how'd you get hold of this information? You turned in before I did."
"Daniel Boone went out on scout duty—self-elected. You know she considers that the earth was made for her to walk on when she chooses to use it that way. She spied trouble ahead and came back, and gave me the key to the west door of Council Grove so I could get out early," my uncle replied.
"I reckoned as much," Rex declared.
In the dark I could feel Esmond Clarenden give a start.
"What do you mean?" he inquired.
"Oh, I saw the fat lady start out, so I followed her, but I located the nest of Mexicans before she did, and got a good deal out of their drunken jargon. And then I cat-footed it back after a snaky-looking, black Spaniard that seemed to be following her. There were three of us in a row, but the devil hasn't got the hindmost one, not yet—that's me."
"You saw some one follow Daniel into camp?" my uncle broke in, anxiously. But no threatening peril ever hurried Rex Krane's speech.
"Yes, and I also followed some one; but I lost him in this ink-well of a hole, and I was waitin' till he left so I could put the cat out, an' shut the door, when you cut across the river. I've been sittin' round now to see that nothin' broke loose till you got back. Meantime, the thing sort of faded away. I heard a horse gallopin' off east, too. Mebby they are outpostin' to surround our retreat. I didn't wake Bill. He's got no more imagination than Bev. If I had needed anybody I'd have stirred up Gail, here."
In the dark I fairly swelled with pride, and from that moment Rex Krane was added to my little list of heroes that had been made up, so far, of Esmond Clarenden and Jondo and any army officer above the rank of captain.
"Krane, you'll do. I thought I had your correct measure back in Independence," Uncle Esmond said, heartily. "As to the boys, I can risk them; they are Clarendens. My anxiety is for the little orphan girl. She is only a child. I couldn't leave her behind us, and I must not let a hair of her head be harmed."
"She's a right womanly little thing," Rex Krane said, carelessly; but I wondered if in the dark his eyes might not have had the same look they had had at noon when he turned to Mat sitting beside my uncle. Maybe back at Boston he had a little sister of his own like her. Anyhow, I decided then that men's words and faces do not always agree.
Again the roar of voices broke out, and we scrambled from the wagon and quickly gathered our company together.
"What did you find out?" Jondo asked.
"We must clear out of here right away and get through to the other side of town and be off by daylight without anybody knowing it. They are a gang of ugly Mexicans who would not let us cross the river if we should wait till morning. They have already sent a spy over here, and they are waiting for him to report."
"Where is he now?" Bill Banney broke in.
"They's two of him—I know there is," Rex Krane declared. "One of him went east, to cut us off I reckon; an' t'other faded into nothin' toward the river. Kind of a double deal, looks to me."
Both men looked doubtingly at the young man; but without further words, Jondo took command, and we knew that the big plainsman would put through whatever Esmond Clarenden had planned. For Aunty Boone was right when she said, "They tote together."
"We must snake these wagons through town, as though we didn't belong together, but we mustn't get too far apart, either. And remember now, Clarenden, if anybody has to stop and visit with 'em, I'll do it myself," Jondo said.
"Why can't we ride the ponies? We can go faster and scatter more," I urged, as we hastily broke camp.
"He is right, Esmond. They haven't been riding all their lives for nothing," Jondo agreed, as Esmond Clarenden turned hesitatingly toward Mat Nivers.
In the dim light her face seemed bright with courage. It is no wonder that we all trusted her. And trust was the large commodity of the plains in those days, when even as children we ran to meet danger with courageous daring.
"You must cross the river letting the ponies pick their own ford," Jondo commanded us. "Then go through to the ridge on the northwest side of town. Keep out of the light, and if anybody tries to stop you, ride like fury for the ridge."
"Lemme go first," Aunty Boone interposed. "Nobody lookin' for me this side of purgatory. 'Fore they gets over their surprise I'll be gone. Whoo-ee!"
The soft exclamation had a breath of bravery in it that stirred all of us.
"You are right, Daniel. Lead out. Keep to the shadows. If you must run make your mules do record time," Uncle Esmond said.
"You'll find me there when you stop," Rex Krane declared. No sick man ever took life less seriously. "I'm goin' ahead to John-the-Baptist this procession and air the parlor bedrooms."
"Krane, you are an invalid and a fool. You'd better ride in the wagon with me," Bill Banney urged.
"Mebby I am. Don't throw it up to me, but I'm no darned coward, and I'm foot-loose. It's my job to give the address of welcome over t'other side of this Mexican settlement."
The tall, thin young man slouched his cap carelessly on his head and strode away toward the river. Youth was reckless in those days, and the trail was the home of dramatic opportunity. But none of us had dreamed hitherto of Rex Krane's degree of daring and his stubborn will.
The big yellow moon was sailing up from the east; the Neosho glistened all jet and silver over its rough bed; the great shadowy oaks looked ominously after us as we moved out toward the threatening peril before us. Slowly, as though she had time to kill, Aunty Boone sent the brown mule and trusty dun down to the river's rock-bottom ford. Slowly and unconcernedly she climbed the slope and passed up the single street toward the saloon she had already "prospected." Pausing a full minute, she swung toward a far-off cabin light to the south, jogging over the rough ground noisily. The door of the drinking-den was filled with dark faces as the crowd jostled out. Just a lone wagon making its way somewhere about its own business, that was all.
As the crowd turned in again three ponies galloped up the street toward the slope leading out to the high level prairies beyond the Neosho valley. But who could guess how furiously three young hearts beat, and how tightly three pairs of young hands clutched the bridle reins as we surged forward, forgetting the advice to keep in the shadow.
Just after we had crossed the river, a man on horseback fell in behind us. We quickened our speed, but he gained on us. Before we reached the saloon he was almost even with us, keeping well in the shadow all the while. In the increasing moonlight, making everything clear to the eye, I gave one quick glance over my shoulder and saw that the horseman was a Mexican. I have lived a life so fraught with danger that I should hardly remember the feeling of fear but for the indelible imprint of that one terrified minute in the moonlit street of Council Grove.
Two ruffians on watch outside the saloon sprang up with yells. The door burst open and a gang of rowdies fairly spilled out around us. We three on our ponies had the instinctive security on horseback of children born to the saddle, else we should never have escaped from the half-drunken crew. I recall the dust of striking hoofs, the dark forms dodging everywhere, the Mexican rider keeping between us and the saloon door, and most of all I remember one glimpse of Mat Nivers's face with big, staring eyes, and firm-set mouth; and I remember my fleeting impression that she could take care of herself if we could; and over all a sudden shadow as the moon, in pity of our terror, hid its face behind a tiny cloud.
When it shone out again we were dashing by separate ways up the steep slope to the west ridge, but, strangely enough, the Mexican horseman with a follower or two had turned away from us and was chasing off somewhere out of sight.
Up on top of the bluff, with Rex Krane and Aunty Boone, we watched and waited. The wooded Neosho valley full of inky blackness seemed to us like a bottomless gorge of terror which no moonlight could penetrate. We strained our ears to catch the rattle of the wagons, but the noise from the saloon, coming faintly now and then, was all the sound we could hear save the voices of the night rising up from the river, and the whisperings of the open prairie to the west.
In that hour Rex Krane became our good angel.
"Keep the law, 'Hold fast'! You made a splendid race of it, and if Providence made that fellow lose you gettin' out, and led him and his gang sideways from you, I reckon she will keep on takin' care of you till Clarenden resumes control, so don't you worry."
But for his brave presence the terror of that lonely watch would have been harder than the peril of the street, for he seemed more like a gentle mother than the careless, scoffing invalid of the trail.
Midnight came, and the chill of midnight. We huddled together in our wagon and still we waited. Down in the village the lights still burned, and angry voices with curses came to our ears at intervals.
Meantime the three men across the river moved cautiously, hoping that we were safe on the bluff, and knowing that they dared not follow us too rapidly. The wagons creaked and the harness rattled noisily in the night stillness, as slowly, one by one, they lumbered through the darkness across the river and up the bank to the village street. Here they halted and grouped together.
"We must hide out and wait, Clarenden," Jondo counciled. "I hope the ponies and the wagon ahead are safe, but they stirred things up. If we go now we'll all be caught."
The three wagons fell apart and halted wide of the trail where the oak-trees made the blackest shade. The minutes dragged out like hours, and the anxiety for the unprotected group on the bluff made the three men frantic to hurry on. But Jondo's patience equaled his courage, and he always took the least risk. It was nearly midnight, and every noise was intensified. If a mule but moved it set up a clatter of harness chains that seemed to fill the valley.
At last a horseman, coming suddenly from somewhere, rode swiftly by each shadow-hidden wagon, half pausing at the sound of the mules stamping in their places, and then he hurried up the street.
"Three against the crowd. If we must fight, fight to kill," Jondo urged, as the ready firearms were placed for action.
In a minute or two the crew broke out of the saloon and filled the moonlit street, all talking and swearing in broken Spanish.
"Not come yet!"
"Pedro say they be here to-morrow night!" "We wait till to-morrow night!"
And with many wild yells they fell back for a last debauch in the drinking-den.
"I don't understand it," Jondo declared. "That fellow who rode by here ought to have located every son of us, but if they want to wait till to-morrow night it suits me."
An hour later, when the village was in a dead sleep, three wagons slowly pulled up the long street and joined the waiting group at the top, and the crossing over was complete.
Dawn was breaking as our four wagons, followed by the ponies, crept away in the misty light. As we trailed off into the unknown land, I looked back at the bluff below which nestled the last houses we were to see for seven hundred miles. And there, outlined against the horizon, a Mexican stood watching us. I had seen the same man one day riding up from the ravine southwest of Fort Leavenworth. I had seen him dashing toward the river the next day. I had watched him sitting across the street from the Clarenden store in Independence.
I wondered if it might have been this man who had hung about our camp the evening before, and if it might have been this same man who rode between us and the saloon mob, leading the crowd after him and losing us on the side of the bluff. And as we had eluded the Council Grove danger, I wondered what would come next, and if he would be in it.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST
"So I draw the world together, link by link." —KIPLING.
Day after day we pushed into the unknown wilderness. No wagon-trains passed ours moving eastward. No moccasined track in the dust of the trail gave hint of any human presence near. Where to-day the Pullman car glides in smooth comfort, the old Santa Fe Trail lay like a narrow brown ribbon on the green desolation of Nature's unconquered domain. Out beyond the region of long-stemmed grasses, into the short-grass land, we pressed across a pathless field-of-the-cloth-of-green, gemmed with myriads of bright blossoms—broad acres on acres that the young years of a coming century should change into great wheat-fields to help fill the granaries of the world. How I reveled in it—that far-stretching plain of flower-starred verdure! It was my world—mine, unending, only softening out into lavender mists that rimmed it round in one unbroken fold of velvety vapor.
At last we came to the Arkansas River—flat-banked, sand-bottomed, wide, wandering, impossible thing—whose shallow waters followed aimlessly the line of least resistance, back and forth across its bed. Rivers had meant something to me. The big muddy Missouri for Independence and Fort Leavenworth, that its steamers might bring the soldiers, and my uncle's goods to their places. The little rivers that ran into the big ones, to feed their currents for down-stream service. The creeks, that boys might wade and swim and fish, else Beverly would have lived unhappily all his days. But here was a river that could neither fetch nor carry. Nobody lived near it, and it had no deep waters like our beloved, ugly old Missouri. I loved the level prairies, but I didn't like that river, somehow. I felt exposed on its blank, treeless borders, as if I stood naked and defenseless, with no haven of cover from the enemies of the savage plains.
The late afternoon was hot, the sky was dust-dimmed, the south wind feverish and strength-sapping. At dawn we had sighted a peak against the western horizon. We were approaching it now—a single low butte, its front a sheer stone bluff facing southward toward the river, it lifted its head high above the silent plains; and to the north it stretched in a long gentle slope back to a lateral rim along the landscape. The trail crept close about its base, as if it would cling lovingly to this one shadow-making thing amid all the open, blaring, sun-bound miles stretching out on either side of it.
As Beverly and I were riding in front of Mat's wagon, of which we had elected ourselves the special guardians, Rex Krane came up alongside Bill Banney's team in front of us. The young men were no such hard-and-fast friends as Beverly and I. For some reason they had little to say to each other.
"Is that what you call Pike's Peak, Bill?" Rex asked.
"No, the mountains are a month away. That's Pawnee Rock, and I'll breathe a lot freer when we get out of sight of that infernal thing," Bill replied.
"What's its offense?" Rex inquired.
"It's the peak of perdition, the bottomless pit turned inside out," Bill declared.
"I don't see the excuse for a rock sittin' out here, sayin' nothin', bein' called all manner of unpleasant names," the young Bostonian insisted.
"Well, I reckon you'd find one mighty quick if you ever heard the soldiers at Fort Leavenworth talk about it once. All the plainsmen dread it. Jondo says more men have been killed right around this old stone Sphinx than any other one spot in North America, outside of battle-fields."
"Happy thought! Do their ghosts rise up and walk at midnight? Tell me more," Rex urged.
"Nobody walks. Everybody runs. There was a terrible Indian fight here once; the Pawnees in the king-row, and all the hosts of the Midianites, and Hivites, and Jebusites, Kiowa, Comanche, and Kaw, rag-tag and bobtail, trying to get 'em out. I don't know who won, but the citadel got christened Pawnee Rock. It took a fountain filled with blood to do it, though."
Rex Krane gave a long whistle.
"I believe Bill is trying to scare him, Bev," I murmured.
"I believe he's just precious wasting time," Beverly replied.
"And so," Bill continued, "it came to be a sort of rock of execution where romances end and they die happily ever afterward. The Indians get up there and, being able to read fine print with ease as far away as either seacoast, they can watch any wagon-train from the time it leaves Council Grove over east to Bent's Fort on the Purgatoire Creek out west; and having counted the number of men, and the number of bullets in each man's pouch, they slip down and jump on the train as it goes by. If the men can make it to beat them to the top of the rock, as they do sometimes, they can keep the critters off, unless the Indians are strong enough to keep them up there and sit around and wait till they starve for water, and have to come down. It's a grim old fortress, and never needs a garrison. Indians or white men up there, sometimes they defend and sometimes attack. But it's a bad place always, and on account of having our little girl along—" Bill paused. "A fellow gets to see a lot of country out here," he added.
"Banney, just why didn't you join the army? You'd have a chance to see a lot more of the country, if this Mexican War goes on," Rex Krane said, meditatively.
"I'd rather be my own captain and order myself to the front, and likewise command my rear-guard to retire, whenever I doggone please," Bill said. "It isn't the soldiers that'll do this country the most good. They are useful enough when they are useful, Lord knows. And we'll always need a decent few of 'em around to look after women and children, and invalids," he went on. "I tell you, Krane, it's men like Clarenden that's going to make these prairies worth something one of these days. The men who build up business, not them that shoot and run to or from. That's what the West's got to have. I'm through going crazy about army folks. One man that buys and sells, if he gives good weight and measure, is, himself, a whole regiment for civilization."
Just then Jondo halted the train, and we gathered about him.
"Clarenden, let's pitch camp at the rock. The horses are dead tired and this wind is making them nervous. There's a storm due as soon as it lays a bit, and we would be sort of protected here. A tornado's a giant out in this country, you know."