WINNING THE WILDERNESS
In all the story of the world of man, Who blazed the way to greater, better things? Who stopped the long migration of wild men, And set the noble task of building human homes? The learned recluse? The forum teacher? The poet-singer? The soldier, voyager, Or ruler? 'T was none of this proud line. The man who digged the ground foretold the destiny Of men. 'T was he made anchor for the heart; Gave meaning to the hearthstone, and the birthplace, And planted vine and figtree at the door. He made e'en nations possible. Aye, when With his stone axe he made a hoe, he carved, Unwittingly, the scepter of the world. The steps by which the multitudes have climbed Were all rough-hewn by this base implement. In its rude path have followed all the minor Arts of men. Hark back along the centuries, And hear its march across the continents. From zone to zone, all 'round the bounteous world, The man whose skill makes rich the barren field And causes grass to grow, and flowers to blow, And fruits to ripen, and grain turn to gold— That man is King! Long live the King! —Mrs. J. K. Hudson.
WINNING THE WILDERNESS
MARGARET HILL McCARTER
Author of "The Price of the Prairie," "A Wall of Men," "The Peace of the Solomon Valley," "A Master's Degree," etc.
J. N. MARCHAND
A. C. McCLURG & CO.
A. C. McClurg & Co.
Published September, 1914
Copyrighted in Great Britain
W. F. HALL PRINTING COMPANY, CHICAGO
THAT FARMER FATHER AND MOTHER
WITH THEIR HANDS ON TODAY
BUT WITH THEIR EYES ON TOMORROW
WHO THROUGH LABOR AND LONELINESS AND
HOPES LONG DEFERRED
HAVE WON A DESERT TO FRUITFULNESS
A WILDERNESS TO BEAUTY
A reach of level prairie bounded only by the edge of the world—misty ravelings of heliotrope and amber, covered only by the arch of heaven—blue, beautiful and pitiless in its far fathomless spaces. To the southwest a triple fold of deeper purple on the horizon line—mere hint of commanding headlands thitherward. Across the face of the prairie streams wandering through shallow clefts, aimlessly, somewhere toward the southeast; their course secured by gentle swells breaking into sheer low bluffs on the side next to the water, or by groups of cottonwood trees and wild plum bushes along their right of way. And farther off the brown indefinite shadowings of half-tamed sand dunes. Aside from these things, a featureless landscape—just grassy ground down here and blue cloud-splashed sky up there.
The last Indian trail had disappeared. The hoofprints of cavalry horses had faded away. The price had been paid for the prairie—the costly measure of death and daring. But the prairie itself, in its loneliness and loveliness, was still unsubdued. Through the fury of the winter's blizzard, the glory of the springtime, the brown wastes of burning midsummer, the long autumn, with its soft sweet air, its opal skies, and the land a dream of splendor which the far mirage reflects and the wide horizon frames in a curtain of exquisite amethyst—through none of these was the prairie subdued. Only to the coming of that king whose scepter is the hoe, did soul of the soil awake to life and promise. To him the wilderness gave up everything except its beauty and the sweep of the freedom-breathing winds that still inspire it.
CHAPTER PAGE I The Blessing of Asher 1 II The Sign of the Sunflower 16 III The Will of the Wind 30 IV Distress Signals 45 V A Plainsman of the Old School 58 VI When the Grasshopper Was a Burden 82 VII The Last Bridge Burned 103 VIII Anchored Hearthstones 122 IX The Beginning of Service 136 X The Coming of Love 155 XI Lights and Shadows 175 XII The Fat Years 187
XIII The Rollcall 207 XIV The Second Generation 224 XV The Coburn Book 238 XVI The Humaneness of Champers 263 XVII The Purple Notches 274 XVIII Remembering the Maine 289 XIX The "Fighting Twentieth" 311 XX The Crooked Trail 330 XXI Jane Aydelot's Will 354 XXII The Farther Wilderness 362 XXIII The End of the Wilderness 379 XXIV The Call of the Sunflower 393
They sought the trail and followed it westward in the face of the wind 1
"Read these," she said, "then promise me that in the hour when Leigh needs my help you will let me help her" 166
"It's a friendly act on somebody's part." he said grimly 180
Leigh turned to see Thaine Aydelot looking down at her as he leaned over the high back of the rustic seat 274
The old Antaean fable of strength renewed from the ground Was a human truth for the ages; since the hour of the Eden-birth. That man among men was strongest who stood with his feet on the earth! —Sharlot M. Hall.
WINNING THE WILDERNESS
THE BLESSING OF ASHER
Unless there be in the background a mother, no portrait of a man is complete. —Winston Churchill
The old Aydelot farm reached quite down to the little village of Cloverdale, from which it was separated by Clover Creek. But the Aydelot farmhouse stood a good half-mile away up the National pike road toward the Virginia state line. The farm consisted of two long narrow strips of ground, bordering the road on either side and walled about by forests hiding stagnant marshes in their black-shadowed depths. Francis Aydelot had taken up the land from the government before the townsite was thought of. Farming was not to his liking and his house had been an inn, doing a thriving business with travelers going out along that great National highway in ante-railway days. But when the village took root and grew into a little town, the village tavern absorbed the revenue from the traveling public, and Francis Aydelot had, perforce, to put his own hands to the plow and earn a living from the land. It was never a labor of love with him, however, and although he grew well-to-do in the tilling, he resented the touch of the soil as something degrading.
Cloverdale did not grow toward him, because, out of prejudice at its being, he would not sell one foot of his ground for town lot purposes. Nevertheless, since he was upright in all his dealings, the villagers grew proud of him, deferred to his judgment, quoted his opinions, and rated him generally the biggest asset of the community, with one exception. That exception was young Asher Aydelot, a pink-cheeked, gray-eyed boy, only son of the House of Aydelot and heir to all the long narrow acres from the wooded crest on the east to the clear waters of Clover Creek on the west. He was heir to more than these, however, if the heritage of ancestry counts for anything.
Jean Aydelot, the first of the name in America, driven from France by his family on account of his Huguenot beliefs, had settled in Virginia. He had quickly grasped the American ideals of freedom, the while he affiliated easily with the exclusive English Cavaliers. Something of the wanderlust in his blood, however, kept him from rooting too firmly at once. It happened that when a band of Quaker exiles had sought refuge in Virginia and was about to be driven out by the autocratic Cavaliers, young Aydelot, out of love for a Quaker girl, had championed their cause vehemently. And he was so influential in the settlement that he might have succeeded, but for one family—the wealthy and aristocratic Thaines. Through the son of this family the final expulsion of these Quakers was accomplished. The woman in the case was Mercy Pennington, a pretty Quakeress with whom young Jerome Thaine fell in love, promising protection to all her people in return for her hand. When she refused his offer, the Thaines carried the day, and the Quakers again became exiles. Jean Aydelot followed them to Pennsylvania and married Mercy Pennington, who was promptly disowned by the Quaker Church for this marriage to one outside its membership.
In spite of all this heresy, however, the Aydelots became one of the leading families in the development of the colonies. Their descendants fell heir to the traits of their French-English forbears: freedom of belief, courage to follow a cause, a touch of the wanderlust, the mercurial French mind, and the steady poise of the followers of the Inward Light. A trace of bitterness had come down the years, however, with the family history; a feud-like resentment against the family of Jerome Thaine of Virginia.
Francis Aydelot had crossed the Alleghanies and settled in Ohio in frontier days. Here his life, like his narrow, woods-bound farm, was clean and open but narrowed by surroundings and lack of opportunity. What had made for freedom and reform in his ancestors, in him became prejudice and stubborn will. Mrs. Aydelot was a broad-minded woman. Something of vision was in her clear gray eyes. Love of beauty, respect for learning, and an almost statesman-like grasp of civic duty and the trend of national progress were hers, too.
From such ancestry came Asher Aydelot, the healthiest, happiest country boy that ever waked the echoes of the old Ohio woodlands, or dared the currents of her mad little rivers, or whistled fearlessly as he scampered down the dusty pike road in the soft black summer nights.
Asher was just fifteen when the Civil War swept the nation off its feet. The Quaker spirit of Mercy Pennington made fighting repulsive to his father, but in Asher the old Huguenot courage of Jean Aydelot blazed forth, together with the rash partisanship of a young hot-blood whose life has been hemmed in too narrowly by forest walls. Almost before Cloverdale knew there was a war, the Third Ohio Regiment was on its way to the front. Among its bearded men was one beardless youth, a round-faced drummer boy of fifteen, the only child of the big farmhouse beside the National road. In company with him was his boyhood chum, Jim Shirley, son of the Cloverdale tavern keeper.
* * * * *
An April sun was slipping behind the treetops, and the twilight mists were already rising above the creek. Francis Aydelot and his wife sat on the veranda watching Asher in the glory of a military suit and brass buttons coming up the pike with springing step.
"How strong he is! I'm glad he is at home again," the mother was saying.
"Yes, he's here to stay at last. I have his plans all settled," Francis Aydelot declared.
"But, Francis, a man must make some plans for himself. Asher may not agree," Mrs. Aydelot spoke earnestly.
"How can our boy know as well as his father does what is best for him? He must agree, that's all. We have gone over this matter often enough together. I won't have any Jim Shirley in my family. He's gone away and nobody knows where he is, just when his father needs him to take the care of the tavern off his hands."
"What made Jim go away from Cloverdale?" Mrs. Aydelot asked.
"Nobody seems to know exactly. He left just before his brother, Tank, married that Leigh girl up the Clover valley somewhere. But everything's settled for Asher. He will be marrying one of the Cloverdale girls pretty soon and stay right here in town. We'll take it up with him now. There's no use waiting."
"And yet I wish we might wait till he speaks of it himself. Remember, he's been doing his own thinking in the time he's been away," the mother insisted.
Just then, Asher reached the corner of the door yard. Catching sight of the two, he put his hands on the top of the paling fence, leaped lightly over it, and came across to the veranda, where he sat down on the top step.
"Just getting in from town? The place hasn't changed much, has it?" the father declared.
"No, not much," Asher replied absently, looking out with unseeing eyes at the lengthening woodland shadows, "a church or two more, some brick sidewalk, and a few stores and homes—just added on, not improved. I miss Jim Shirley everywhere. The older folks seem the same, but some of the girls are pushing baby-carriages and the boys are getting round-shouldered and droopy-jawed."
He drew himself up with military steadiness as he spoke.
"Well, you are glad to settle down anyhow," his father responded. "The old French spirit of roving and adventure has had its day with you, and now you will begin your life work."
"Yes, I'm done with fighting." Asher's lips tightened. "But what do you call my life work, father?"
It was the eighth April after the opening of the Civil War. Asher had just come home from two years of army service on the western plains. Few changes had come to the little community; but to the young man, who eight springtimes ago had gone out as a pink-cheeked drummer boy, the years had been full of changes. He was now twenty-three, straight as an Indian, lean and muscular as a veteran soldier. The fair, round cheeks of boyhood were brown and tinged with red-blooded health. There was something resolute and patient in the clear gray eyes, as if the mother's own far vision had crept into them. But the ready smile that had made the Cloverdale community love the boy broke as quickly now on the man's face, giving promise that his saving sense of humor and his good nature would be factors to reckon with in every combat.
Asher had staid in the ranks till the end of the war, had been wounded, captured, and imprisoned; had fought through a hospital fever and narrowly escaped death in the front of many battle lines. But he did not ask for a furlough, nor account his duty done till the war was ended. Just before that time, when he was sick in a Southern prison, a rebel girl had walked into his life to stay forever. With his chum, Jim Shirley, he had chafed through two years in a little eastern college, the while bigger things seemed calling him to action. At the end of the second year, he broke away, and joining the regular army, began the hazardous life of a Plains scout.
Two years of fighting a foe from every way the winds blow, cold and hunger, storms and floods and desert heat, poisonous reptiles, poisoned arrows of Indians, and the deadly Asiatic cholera; sometimes with brave comrades, sometimes with brutal cowards, sometimes on scout duty, utterly and awfully alone; over miles on endless miles of grassy level prairies, among cruel canyons, in dreary sand lands where men die of thirst, monotonous and maddening in their barren, eternal sameness; and sometimes, between sunrises of superb grandeur, and sunsets of sublime glory, over a land of exquisite virgin loveliness—it is small wonder that the ruddy cheeks were bronze as an Indian's, that the roundness of boyhood had given place to the muscular strength of manhood, that the gray eyes should hold something of patience and endurance and of a vision larger than the Cloverdale neighborhood might understand.
When Asher had asked, "What do you call my life work, Father?" something impenetrable was in his direct gaze.
Francis Aydelot deliberated before replying. Then the decisive tone and firm set of the mouth told what resistance to his will might cost.
"It may not seem quite homelike at first, but you will soon find a wife and that always settles a man. I can trust you to pick the best there is here. As to your work, it must be something fit for a gentleman, and that's not grubbing in the ground. Of course, this is Aydelot soil. It couldn't belong to anybody else. I never would sell a foot of it to Cloverdale to let the town build this way. I'd as soon sell to a Thaine from Virginia as I'd sell to that town."
He waved a hand toward the fields shut in by heavy woodlands, where the shadows were already black. After a moment he continued:
"Everything is settled for you, Asher. I've been pretty careful and lucky, too, in some ways. The men who didn't go to war had the big chances at money making, you know. While you were off fighting, I was improving the time here. I've done it fairly, though. I never dodged a law in my life, nor met a man into whose eyes I couldn't look squarely."
As he spoke, the blood left Asher's cheeks and his face grew gray under the tan.
"Father, do you think a man who fights for his country is to be accounted below the man who stays at home and makes money?"
"Well, he certainly can do more for his children than some of those who went to this war can do for their fathers," Francis Aydelot declared. "Suppose I was helpless and poor now, what could you do for me?"
There was no attempt at reply, and the father went on: "I have prepared your work for you. You must begin it at once. Years ago Cloverdale set up a hotel, a poor enough tavern even for those days, but it robbed me of the patronage this house had before that time, and I had to go to farming. Every kind of drudgery I've had to do here. Cutting down forests, and draining swamps is a back-breaking business. I never could forgive the founders for stopping by Clover Creek, when they might have gone twenty miles further on where a town was needed and left me here. But that's all past now. I've improved the time. I have a good share of stock in the bank and I own the only hotel in Cloverdale. I closed with Shirley as soon as I heard you were coming home. Shirley's getting old, and since Jim has gone there's no one to help him and take his place later, so he sold at a very good figure. He had to sell for some reason, I believe. The Shirleys are having some family trouble that I don't understand nor care about. You've always been a sort of idol in the town anyhow. Now that you are to go into the Shirley House as proprietor I suppose Cloverdale will take it as a dispensation of Providence in their favor, and you can live like a gentleman."
"But, father, I've always liked the country best. Don't you remember how Jim Shirley was always out here instead of my going down town when we were boys?"
"You are only a boy, now, Asher, and this is all I'll hear to your doing. You ought to be thankful for having such a chance open to you. I have leased the farm for five years and you don't want to be a hired man at twenty dollars a month, I reckon. Of course, the farm will be yours some day, unless you take a notion to run off to Virginia and marry a Thaine."
The last words were said jokingly, but Asher's mother saw a sudden hardening of the lines of his face as he sat looking out at the darkening landscape.
There was only a faint glow in the west now. The fields toward Cloverdale were wrapped in twilight shadows. Behind the eastern treetops the red disk of the rising moon was half revealed. Asher Aydelot waited long before he spoke. At length, he turned toward his father with a certain stiffening of his form, and each felt a space widening gulf-wise between them.
"You stayed at home and grew rich, Father."
The father's voice cut like a steel edge. He saw only opposition to his will here, but the mother forecasted the end from that moment.
"Father, war gives us to see bigger things than hatred between two sections of the country. There is education in it, too. That is a part of the compensation. Once, when our regiment was captured and starving, the Fifty-fourth Virginia boys saved our lives by feeding us the best supper I ever tasted. And a Rebel girl—" he broke off suddenly.
"Well, what of all this? What are you trying to say?" queried the older man.
"I'm trying to show you that I cannot sit down here in the Shirley House and play mine host any more than I could—" hesitatingly—"marry a Cloverdale girl on demand. No Cloverdale girl would have me so. I've seen too much of the country for such a position, Father. Let the men who staid at home do the little jobs."
He had not meant to say all this, but the stretch of boundless green prairies was before his eyes, the memory of heroic action where men utterly forget themselves was in his mind, making life in that little Ohio settlement seem only a boy's pastime, to be put away with other childish things. While night and day, in the battle clamor, in the little college class room, on boundless prairie billows, among lonely sand dunes—everywhere, he carried the memory of the gentle touch of the hand of a rebel girl, who had visited him when he was sick and in prison. And withal, he resented dictation, as all the Aydelots and Penningtons before him had done.
"What do you propose to do?" his father asked.
"I don't know yet what I can do. I only know what I cannot do."
"And that is—?"
"Just what I have said. I cannot be a tavern keeper here the rest of my days with nothing to do half of the time except to watch the men pitch horseshoes behind the blacksmith shop, and listen to the flies buzz in the windows on summer afternoons; and everything else so quiet and dead you don't know whether you are on the street or in the graveyard. If you'd ever crossed the Mississippi River you'd understand why."
"Well, I haven't, and I don't understand. But the only way to stop this roving is to make a home of your own. Will you tell me how you expect to support a Cloverdale girl when you marry one?"
"I don't expect to marry one." The smile was winning, but the son's voice sounded dangerously like the father's.
"Because when I marry it will be to a southern girl—" Asher hesitated a moment. When he went on, his voice was not as son to father, but as man to man.
"It all happened down in Virginia, when I was wounded and in prison. This little girl took care of me. Only a soldier really knows what a woman's hand means in sickness. But she did more. She risked everything, even her life, to get letters through the lines to you and to get me exchanged. I shiver yet when I think of her, disguised as a man in soldier's clothes, taking the chance she did for me. And, well, I left my heart down there. That's all."
"Why haven't you ever told us this before, Asher?" his father asked.
Asher stood up where the white moonlight fell full on his face. Somehow the old Huguenot defiance and the old Quaker endurance of his ancestors seemed all expressed in him.
"I wasn't twenty-one, then, and I have nothing yet to offer a girl by way of support," he said.
"Why, Asher!" Mrs. Aydelot exclaimed, "you have everything here."
"Not yet, mother," he replied. "And I haven't told you because her name is Virginia Thaine, and she is a descendant of Jerome Thaine. Are the Aydelots big enough to bury old hates?"
Francis Aydelot sat moveless as a statue. When at length he spoke, there was no misunderstanding his meaning.
"You have no means by which to earn a living. You will go down to town and take charge of the Shirley House at once, or go to work as a hired hand here. But remember this: from the day you marry a Thaine of Virginia you are no longer my son. Family ties, family honor, respect for your forefathers forbid it."
He rose without more words, and went into the house.
Then came the mother's part.
"Sit down, Asher," she said, and Asher dropped to his place on the step.
"We don't seem to see life through the same spectacles," he said calmly. "Am I wrong, mother? Nobody can choose my life for me, nor my wife, either. Didn't old grandfather, Jean Aydelot, leave his home in France, and didn't grandmother, Mercy Pennington, marry to suit her own choice?"
Even in the shadow, his mother noted the patient expression of the gray eyes looking up at her.
"Asher, it is Aydelot tradition to be determined and self-willed, and the bitterness against Jerome Thaine and his descendants has never left the blood—till now."
She stroked his hair lovingwise, as mothers will ever do.
"Do you suppose father will ever change?"
"I don't believe he will. We have talked of this many times, and he will listen to nothing else. He grows more set in his notions as we all do with years, unless—"
"Well, you don't, mother. Unless what?" Asher asked.
"Unless we think broadly as the years broaden out toward old age. But, Asher, what are your plans?"
"I'm afraid I have none yet. You know I was a farmer boy until I was fifteen, a soldier boy till I was nineteen, a college student for two years, and a Plains scout for two years more. Tell me, mother, what does all this fit me for? Not for a tavern in a town of less than a thousand people."
He sat waiting, his elbow resting on his knee, his chin supported by his closed hand.
"Asher, when you left school and went out West, I foresaw what has happened tonight," Mrs. Aydelot began. "I tried to prepare your father for it, but he would not listen, would not understand. He doesn't yet. He never will. But I do. You will not stay in Ohio always, because you do not fit in here now. Newer states keep calling you westward, westward. This was frontier when we came here in the thirties; we belong here. But, sooner or later, you will put your life into the building of the West. Something—the War or the Plains, or may be this Virginia Thaine, has left you too big for prejudice. You will go sometime where there is room to think and live as you believe."
"Mother, may I go? I dream of it night and day. I'm so cramped here. The woods are in my way. I can't see a mile. I want to see to the edge of the world, as I can on the prairies. A man can win a kingdom out there."
He was facing her now, his whole countenance aglow with bright anticipation.
"There is only one way to win that kingdom," Mrs. Aydelot declared. "The man who takes hold of the plow-handles is the man who will really conquer the prairies. His scepter is not the rifle, but the hoe."
For all his life, Asher Aydelot never forgot his mother's face, nor the sound of her low prophetic words on that moonlit night on the shadowy veranda of his childhood home.
"You are right, mother. I don't want to fight any more. It must be the soil that is calling me back to the West, the big, big West! And I mean to go when the time comes. I hope it will come soon, and I know you will give me your blessing then."
His mother's hands were pressed lovingly upon his forehead, as he leaned against her knee.
"My blessing, and more than mine. The blessing of Moses to Asher of old, as well. 'Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.'"
She bent over her boy, and pushing back the hair from his forehead, she kissed it reverently, nor dreamed in how many a bitter strife would the memory of this sacred hour come back to him, with the blessed note of victory.
The next morning Asher put on his working clothes and began the life of a hired man on his father's farm. The summer was long and hot, and in the late August the dread typhoid malaria swept up from the woods marshes. It was of virulent form and soon had its way with Asher's father and mother.
When the will of Francis Aydelot was read in court, the inexorable will of a stubborn man, it declared that the Cloverdale Hotel, the bank stock, and the farm with all the appurtenances thereunto pertaining, should descend to Asher Aydelot, provided he should remain a resident of Ohio and should never be united in marriage to any descendant of Jerome Thaine of the State of Virginia. Failing in this, all the property, except a few hundred dollars in cash, should descend to one Jane Aydelot, of Philadelphia, and her heirs and assigns forever; provided these heirs were not the children of Virginia Thaine of the state of Virginia.
On the same day, Asher wrote to one Jane Aydelot, of Philadelphia, to come to Ohio and take possession of her property. Then he carefully sodded the two mounds in the graveyard, and planted old-fashioned sweet pinks upon them, and bidding good-by to the home of his boyhood, he turned his face hopefully to the West.
THE SIGN OF THE SUNFLOWER
Little they knew what wealth untold Lay hid where the desolate prairies rolled: Who would have dared, with brush or pen, As this land is now, to paint it then? —Allerton.
The trail had left the woodland far to the eastward, and wound its way over broad prairie billows, past bluffy-banked streams, along crests of low watersheds, until at last it slid down into an open endlessness of the Lord's earth—just a vasty bigness of landstuff seemingly left over when geography-making was done. It was untamed stuff, too, whereon one man's marking was like to the track of foam in the wake of one ship in mid-ocean. Upon its face lay the trail, broad and barren of growth as the dusty old National pike road making its way across uplands and valleys of Ohio. But this was the only likeness. The pike was a gravel-built, upgraded highway, bordered by little rail-fenced fields and deep forests hiding malarial marshes in the lower places.
This trail, flat along the ungraded ground, tended in the direction of least resistance, generally toward the southwest. It was bounded by absence of landmarks, boulder or tree or cliff. Along either side of it was a fringe of spindling sunflower stalks, with their blooms of gold marking two gleaming threads across the plains far toward the misty nothingness of the western horizon.
The mid-September day had been intensely hot, but the light air was beginning to flow a bit refreshingly out of the sky. A gray cloud-wave, creeping tide-like up from the southwest, was tempering the afternoon glare. In all the landscape the only object to hold the eye was a prairie schooner drawn by a team of hard-mouthed little Indian ponies, and followed by a free-limbed black mare of the Kentucky blue blood.
Asher Aydelot sat on the wagon seat holding the reins. Beside him was his wife, a young, girlish-looking woman with large dark eyes, abundant dark hair, a straight, aristocratic nose, and well-formed mouth and chin.
The two, coming in from the East on the evening before, had reached the end of the stage line, where Asher's team and wagon was waiting for them.
The outfit moved slowly. It had left Carey's Crossing at early dawn and had put twenty-five miles between itself and that last outpost of civilization.
"Why don't you let the horses trot down this hill slope, Asher?" The woman's voice had the soft accent of the South.
"Are you tired, Virgie?" Asher Aydelot looked earnestly down at his wife.
"Not a bit!" The bright smile and vigorous lift of the shoulders were assuring.
"Then we won't hurry. We have several miles to go yet. It is a long day's run from Carey's to our claim. Wolf County is almost like a state. The Crossing hopes to become the county seat."
"Why do they call that place Carey's Crossing?" Mrs. Aydelot asked.
"It was a trading post once where the north and south trail crossed the main trail. Later it was a rallying place for cavalry. Now it's our postoffice," Asher explained.
"I mean, why call it Carey? I knew Careys back in Virginia."
"It is named for a young doctor, the only one in ten thousand miles, so far as I know."
"And his family?" Virginia asked.
"He's a bachelor, I believe. By the way, we aren't going down hill. We are on level ground."
Mrs. Aydelot leaned out beyond the wagon bows to take in the trail behind them.
"Why, we are right in a big saucer. All the land slopes to the center down there before us. Can't you see it?"
"No, I've seen it too often. It is just a trick of the plains—one of the many tricks for the eye out here. Look at the sunflowers, Virgie. Don't you love them?"
Virginia Aydelot nestled close to her husband's side and put one hand on his. It was a little hand, white and soft, the hand of a lady born of generations of gentility. The hand it rested on was big and hard and brown and very strong looking.
"I've always loved them since the day you sent me the little one in a letter," she said in a low voice, as if some one might overhear. "I thought you had forgotten me and the old war days. I wasn't very happy then." There was a quiver of the lip that hinted at the memory of intense sorrow. "I had gone up to the spring in that cool little glen in the mountain behind our home, you know, when a neighbor's servant boy, Bo Peep, Boanerges Peeperville, he named himself, came grinning round a big rock ledge with your letter. Just a crushed little sunflower and a sticky old card, the deuce of hearts. I knew it was from you, and I loved the sunflower for telling me so. Were you near here then? This land looks so peaceful and beautiful to me, and homelike somehow, as if we should find some neighbors just over the hill that you say isn't there."
"Neither the hill nor the neighbors, yet, although settlers will be coming soon. We won't be lonesome very long, I'm sure."
Asher shifted the reins to his other hand and held the little white fingers close.
"It wasn't anywhere near here. It was away off in the southwest corner of—nowhere. I was going to say a shorter word, for that's where we were. I took that card out of an old deck from the man nearest me. The Comanches had fixed him, so he didn't need it in his game any more. There were only two of us left, a big half-breed Cheyenne scout and myself. I picked the sunflower from the only stalk within a hundred miles of there. I guess it grew so far from everything just for me that day. Weak as I was, I'll never forget how hopefully it seemed to look at me. The envelope was one mother had sent me, you remember. I told the Cheyenne how to start it to you from the fort. He left me there, wounded and alone—'twas all he could do—while he went for help about a thousand miles away it must have seemed, even to an Indian. I thought it was my last message to you, dearie, for I never expected to be found alive; but I was, and when you wrote back, sending your letter to 'The Sign of the Sunflower,' Oh, little girl, the old trail blossom was glorified for me forever."
He broke off so suddenly that his wife looked up inquiringly.
"I was thinking of the cool spring and the rocks, and that shady glen, and the mountains, and the trees, and the well-kept mansion houses, and servants like Bo Peep to fetch and carry—and here—Virginia, why did you let me persuade you away from them? Everything was made ready for you there. The Lord didn't do anything for this country but go off and leave it to us."
"Yes, to us. Here is the sunflower and the new home in the new West and Asher Aydelot. And underfoot is the prairie sod that is ours, and overhead is heaven that kept watch over you for me, and over both of us for this. And I persuaded you to bring me here because I wanted to be with you always."
"You can face it all for me?" he asked.
"With you, you mean. Yes, for we'll stop at 'The Sign of the Sunflower' so long as we both shall live. How beautiful they are, these endless bands of gold, drawing us on and on across the plains. Asher, you forget that Virginia is not as it was before the war. But we did keep inherited pride in the Thaine family, and the will to do as we pleased. You see what has pleased me."
"And it shall please me to make such a fortune out of this ground, and build such a home for you that by and by you will forget you ever were without the comforts you are giving up now," Asher declared, looking equal to the task. "Virgie," he added presently, "on the night my mother told me to come out West she gave me her blessing, and the blessing of the old Bible Asher also—'Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be.' I believe the blessing will stay with us; that the Eternal God will be our refuge in this new West and new home-building."
They rode awhile in silence. Then Asher said:
"Look yonder, Virginia, south of the trail. Just a faint yellow line."
"Is it another trail, or are you lost and beginning to see things?"
"No, I'm found," Asher replied. "We scattered those seeds ourselves; did it on Sundays when I was living on my claim, waiting till I could go back and bring you here. We blazed the way, marked it with gold, I'd better say; a line clear to Grass River. It leaves the real Sunflower Trail right here."
"Who were we in this planting?" Virginia asked.
"Oh, me and my first wife, Jim Shirley, and his shepherd dog, Pilot. Jim and I have done several things together besides that. We were boys together back in Cloverdale. We went to the war together to fight you obstreperous Rebels." There was a twinkle in Asher's eyes now.
"Yes, but in the end who really won?" Virginia asked demurely.
"You did, of course—in my case. Jim went back to Cloverdale for awhile. Then he came out here. He's a fine fellow. Plants a few more seeds by the wayside than is good for him, maybe, but a friend to the last rollcall. He was quite a ladies' man once, and nobody knows but himself how much he would have loved a home. He has something of a story back of his coming West, but we never speak of that. He's our only neighbor now."
It was twilight when Asher and his wife slipped down over a low swell and reached their home. The afterglow of sunset was gorgeous in the west. The gray cloud-tide, now a purple sea, was rifted by billows of flame. Level mist-folds of pale violet lay along the prairie distances. In the southwest the horizon line was broken by a triple fold of deepest blue-black tones, the mark of headlands somewhere. Across the landscape a grassy outline marked the course of a stream that wandered dimly toward the darkening night shadows. The subdued tones of evening held all the scene, save where a group of tall sunflowers stood up to catch the last light of day full on their golden shields.
"We are here at last, Mrs. Aydelot. Welcome to our neighborhood!" Asher said bravely as the team halted.
Virginia sat still on the wagon seat, taking in the view of sunset sky and twilight prairie.
"This is our home," she murmured. "I'm glad we are here."
"I'm glad you are glad. I hope I haven't misrepresented it to you," her husband responded, turning away that he might not see her face just then.
It was a strange place to call home, especially to one whose years had been spent mainly in the pretty mountain-walled Virginia valleys where cool brooks babbled over pebbly beds or splashed down in crystal waterfalls; whose childhood home had been an old colonial house with driveways, and pillared verandas, and jessamine-wreathed windows; with soft carpets and cushioned chairs, and candelabra whose glittering pendants reflected the light in prismatic tintings; and everywhere the lazy ease of idle servants and unhurried lives.
The little sod house, nestled among sheltering sunflowers, stood on a slight rise of ground. It contained one room with two windows, one looking to the east and the other to the west, and a single door opening on the south. Above this door was a smooth pine board bearing the inscription, "Sunflower Inn," stained in rather artistic lettering. A low roof extending over the doorway gave semblance to a porch which some scorched vines had vainly tried to decorate. There was a rude seat made of a goods box beside the doorway. Behind the house rose the low crest of a prairie billow, hardly discernible on the level plains. Before it lay the endless prairie across which ran the now half-dry, grass-choked stream. A few stunted cottonwood trees followed its windings, and one little clump of wild plum bushes bristled in a draw leading down to the shallow place of the dry watercourse. All else was distance and vastness void of life and utter loneliness.
Virginia Aydelot looked at the scene before her. Then she turned to her husband with a smile on her young face, saying again,
"I am glad I am here."
There is one chord that every woman's voice touches some time, no matter what her words may be. As Virginia spoke, Asher saw again the moonlight on the white pillars of the south veranda of the old Aydelot farmhouse, and his mother sitting in the shadows; and again he caught the tone of her voice saying,
"Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be."
He leaped from the wagon seat and put up his arms to help his wife to the ground.
"This is the end of the trail," he said gaily. "We have reached the inn with 'The Sign of the Sunflower.' See the signboard Jim has put up for us."
At that moment a big shepherd dog came bounding out of the weeds by the river and leaped toward them with joyous yelps; a light shone through the doorway, and a voice at once deep and pleasant to the ear, called out:
"Well, here you are, just as supper is ready. Present me to the bride, Asher, and then I'll take the stock off your hands."
"Mrs. Aydelot, this is Mr. James Shirley, at present the leading artistic house decorator as well as corn king of the Southwest. Allow me, Jim, to present my wife. You two ought to like each other if each of you can stand me."
They shook hands cordially, and each took the other's measure at a glance. What Shirley saw was a small, well-dressed woman whose charm was a positive force. It was not merely that she was well-bred and genial of manner, nor that for many reasons she was pretty and would always be pretty, even with gray hair and wrinkles. There was something back of all this; something definite to build on; a self-reliance and unbreakable determination without the spirit that antagonizes.
"A thoroughbred," was Shirley's mental comment. "The manners of a lady and the will of a winner."
What Virginia saw was a big, broad-shouldered man, tanned to the very limit of brownness, painfully clean shaven, and grotesquely clean in dress; a white shirt, innocent of bluing in its laundry, a glistening celluloid collar, a black necktie (the last two features evidently just added to the toilet, and neither as yet set to their service), dark pantaloons and freshly blacked shoes. But it was Shirley's face that caught Virginia's eyes, for even with the tan it was a handsome face, with regular features, and blue eyes seeing life deeply rather than broadly. Just a hint of the artistic, however, took away from rather than added to the otherwise manly expression. Clearly, Jim Shirley was a man that men and women, too, must love if they cared for him at all.. And they couldn't help caring for him. He had too much of the quality of eternal interest.
"I'm glad to meet you, and I bid you welcome to your new home, Mrs. Aydelot. The house is in order and supper is ready. I congratulate you, Asher," he said, as he turned away to take the ponies.
"You will come in and eat with us," Virginia said cordially.
"Not tonight. I must put this stock away and hurry home."
Asher opened his lips to repeat his wife's invitation, but something in Jim's face held the words, so he merely nodded a good-by as he led his wife into the sod cabin.
Two decades in Kansas saw hundreds of such cabins on the plains. The walls of this one were nearly two feet thick and smoothly plastered inside with a gypsum product, giving an ivory-yellow finish, smooth and hard as bone. There was no floor but the bare earth into which a nail could scarcely have been driven. The furniture was meager and plain. There was only one picture on the wall, the sweet face of Asher's mother. A bookshelf held a Bible with two or three other volumes, some newspapers and a magazine. Sundry surprising little devices showed the inventive skill of the home-builder, but it was all home-made and unpainted. It must have been the eyes of love that made this place seem homelike to these young people whose early environment had been so vastly different in everything!
Jim Shirley had a supper of fried ham, stewed wild plums, baked sweet potatoes, and hot coffee, with canned peaches and some hard little cookies. Surely the Lord meant men to be the cooks. Society started wrong in the kitchen, for the average man prepares a better meal with less of effort and worry than the average or super-average woman will ever do. It was not the long ride alone, it was this appetizing food that made that first meal in the sod mansion one that these two remembered in days of different fortune. They remembered, too, the bunch of sunflowers that adorned the table that night. The vase was the empty peach can wrapped round with a piece of newspaper.
As they lingered at their meal, Asher glanced through the little west window and saw Jim Shirley sitting by the clump of tall sunflowers not far away watching them with the eager face of a lonely man. A big white-throated Scotch collie lay beside him, waiting patiently for his master to start for home.
"I am glad Jim has Pilot," Asher thought. "A dog is better than no company at all. I wish he had a wife. Poor lonely fellow!"
Half an hour later the two came outside to the seat by the doorway. The moon was filling the sky with its radiance. A chorus of crickets sang joyously in the short brown grass about the sunflowers. The cottonwoods along the river course gleamed like alabaster in the white night-splendor, and the prairie breeze sang its low crooning song of evening as it flowed gently over the land. "How beautiful the world is," Virginia said, as she caught the full radiance of the light on the prairie.
"Is this beautiful to you, Virgie?" Asher asked, as he drew her close to him. "I've seen these plains when they seemed just plain hell to me, full of every kind of danger: cholera, poison, cold, hunger, heat, hostile Indian, and awful loneliness. And yet, the very fascination of the thing called me back and hardened me to it all. But why? What is there here on these Kansas prairies to hold me here and make me want to bring you here, too? Not a feature of this land is like the home country in Virginia. When the Lord gave Adam and Eve a tryout in the Garden of Eden, He gave them everything with which to start the world off right. Out here we doubt sometimes if there is any God west of the Missouri River. He didn't leave any timber for shelter, nor wood, nor coal for fuel, nor fruit, nor nuts, nor roots, nor water for the dry land. All there is of this piece of the Lord's leftovers is just the prairie down here, and the sky over it. And it's so big I wonder sometimes that there is even enough skystuff to cover it. And yet, it is beautiful and maddening in its hold, once it gets you. Why?"
"Maybe it is the very unconquerableness that cries out to the love of power in you. Maybe the Lord, who knew how easily Adam let Eden slip through his fingers, decided that on the other side of the world He would give a younger race of men, a fire-tried race in battle, the chance to make their own Eden. So He left the stuff here for such as you and me to picture out our own plan and then work to the pattern. It is the real land of promise. Everything waiting to be done here."
"And there's only one way to do it. I am sure of that," Asher replied. "Armies don't win, they terrorize and destroy. We whipped back the Indians out here; they'd come again, if they dared—but they never will," he added quickly, as he saw his wife's face whiten in the moonlight. "It's a struggle to win the soil, with loneliness and distance and a few thousand other things to fight, beside. But I told you all this before I asked you to come out here."
"I wish I could have brought some property to you to help you, Asher, but you know how the Thaine estate was reduced."
"Yes, I helped the family to that," Asher replied.
"Well, I seem to have helped you to lose the Aydelot inheritance. We are starting neck and neck out here," Virginia cried, "and we'll win. I can see our plantation—ranch, you call it—now, with groves and a little lake and a big ranch house, and just acres of wheat and meadows, and red clover and fine stock and big barns, and you and me, the peers of a proud countryside when we have really conquered. 'Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree.' Isn't that the promise?"
"Oh, Virgie, any man could win a kingdom with a wife like you," Asher said tenderly. "Back in Ohio, when I grubbed the fence corners, I saw this country night and day, waiting for us here, and I wondered why the folks were willing to let the marshes down in the deep woods stagnate and breed malaria, and then fight the fever with calomel and quinine every summer, instead of opening the woodland and draining the swamps. Nevertheless, I've left enough money in the Cloverdale bank to take you back East and start up some little sort of a living there, if you find you cannot stay here. I couldn't bring you here and burn all the bridges. All you have to do is to say you want to go back, and you can go."
"You are very good, Asher." His wife's voice was low and soft. "But I don't want to go back. Not until we have failed here. And we shall not fail."
And together that night on the far unconquered plains of Kansas, with the moon shining down upon them, these two, so full of hope and courage, planned their future. In the cottonwood trees by the river sands a night bird twittered sleepily to its mate; the chirp of many crickets in the short grass below the sunflowers had dwindled to a mere note at intervals. The soft breeze caressed the two young faces, then wandered far and far across the lonely land, and in its long low-breathed call to the night there was a sigh of sadness.
THE WILL OF THE WIND
Naught but the endless hills, dim and far and blue, And sighing wind, and sailing cloud, and nobody here but you. —James W. Steele.
The next day, and for many days following, the wind blew; fiercely and unceasingly it blew, carrying every movable thing before it. Whatever was tending in its direction, it helped over the ground amazingly. Whatever tried to move in the face of it had to fight for every inch of the way. It whipped all the gold from the sunflowers and threshed them mercilessly about. It snapped the slender stems of the big, bulgy-headed tumble-weeds and sent them tumbling over and over, mile after mile, until they were caught at last in some draw, like helpless living things, to swell the heap for some prairie fire to feed upon. It lifted the sand from the river bed and swept it in a prairie simoon up the slope, wrapping the little cabin in a cloud of gritty dust. The cottonwoods along the waterway moaned as if in pain and flung up their white arms in feeble protest. The wild plum bushes in the draw were almost buried by the wind-borne drift smothering the narrow crevice, while out on the plains the long lashing waves of bended grass made the eyes burn with weariness. And the sun watched it all with unpitying stare, and the September heat was maddening. But it was cool inside the cabin. Sod houses shut out the summer warmth as they shed off the winter's cold.
Virginia Aydelot stood at the west window watching her husband trying to carry two full pails of water which the wind seemed bent on blowing broadcast along his path. He had been plowing a double fireguard around the premises that morning and his face and clothes were gray with dust. These days of unceasing winds seemed to Virginia to sap the last atom of her energy. But she was young and full of determination.
"Why did you put the well so far away, Asher?" she asked, as he came inside.
The open door gave the wind a new crevice to fill, and it slapped wrathfully at the buckets, splashing the contents on the floor.
"We have to put wells close to the water in this country. I put this one in before I built here. And if we have a well, we are so glad we don't try to move it. The wind might find it out and fill it up with sand while we were doing it. It's a jealous wind, this." Asher's smile lit up his dust-grimed face.
"I've tried all day to keep the dust off the table. I meant to do a washing this morning, but how could any garment stay on the line out there and not be whipped to shreds?"
"Virginia, did you ever do a washing before the war?" Asher asked through the towel. He was trying to scrub his face clean with the least possible amount of water.
"Oh, that's ancient history. No, nor did I do anything else. I was too young. Did you ever try to till a whole section of land back in Ohio before the war?" Virginia asked laughingly.
Asher took the towel from his head to look at her.
"You are older than when I first knew you—the little lady of the old Jerome Thaine mansion home. But you haven't lost any of that girl's charms and you have gained some new ones with the years."
"Stop staring at me and tell me why you didn't put the house down by the well, then," Virginia demanded.
"I did pitch my tent there at first, but it is too near the river, and several things happened, beside," he replied.
"Is that a river, really?" she inquired. "It looks like a weed trail."
"Yes, it is very real when it elects to be. They call it Grass River because there's no grass in it—only sand and weeds—and they call it a river because there is seldom any water in it. But I've seen such lazy sand-foundered streams a mile wide and swift as sin. So I take no risk with precious property, even if I have to tote barrels of water and slop the parlor rug on windy days."
"Then, why didn't you put another door in the kitchen end of the house?" Virginia questioned.
"Two reasons, dearie. First, can you keep one door shut on days like this, even when there is no draught straight through the house?" he inquired.
"Yes, when I put a chair against it, and the table against the chair, and the bed against the table, and the cookstove to back up the bed. I see. Shortage of furniture."
"No, the effect on this cabin if the wind had a sweep through two weak places in the wall. I built this thing to stay till I get ready to go away from it, not for it to go off and leave me sitting here under the sky some stormy day. Of course, the real home, the old Colonial style of house, will stand higher up after awhile, embowered in trees, and the wind may play about its vine-covered verandas, and its stately front columns, but that comes later."
"All right, but what was the second reason for the one doorway? You said you had two?" Virginia broke in.
"Oh, did I? Well, the other reason is insignificant, but effective in its way. I had only one door and no lumber within three hundred miles to make another, and no money to buy lumber, anyhow."
"You should have married a fortune," his wife said demurely.
"I did." The smile on the lips did not match the look in the gray eyes. "My anxiety is that I shall not squander my possession, now I have it."
"You are squandering your dooryard by plowing out there in front of the house. Isn't there ground enough if the wind will be merciful, not to use up our lawn?" Virginia would not be serious.
"I have plowed a double fireguard, and I've burned off the grass between the two to put a wide band of protection about us. I take no chances. Everything is master in the wilderness except man. When he has tamed all these things—prairie fire, storm and drouth, winds and lonely distances, why, there isn't any more wilderness. But it's tough work getting acclimated to these September breezes, I know."
Virginia did not reply at once. All day the scream of the wind had whipped upon her nerves until she wanted to scream herself. But it was not in the blood of the breed to give up easily. Something of the stubborn determination that had made the oldtime Thaines drive the Quakers from Virginia shone now in the dark eyes of this daughter of a well-bred house.
"It's all a matter of getting one's system and this September wind system to play the same tune," she said.
"Virginia, you look just as you did that day when you said you were going through the Rebel ranks in a man's dress to take a message for me to the Union officer of my command, although you ran the risk of being shot for a spy on either side of the lines. When I begged you not to do it, you only laughed at me. I thought then you were the bravest girl I ever saw. Now I know it."
"Well, I'll try not to get hysterical over the wind out here. It is a matter of time and adjustment. Let's adjust ourselves to dinner now."
Beyond her lightly spoken words Asher caught the undertone of courage, and he knew that a battle for supremacy was on, a struggle between physical outcry and mental poise.
After the meal, he said, "I must take my plow down to Shirley's this afternoon. His is broken and I can mend it while he puts in his fireguard with mine. I don't mind the wind, but I won't ask you to face it clear down to Shirley's claim. I don't like to leave you here, either."
"I think I would rather stay indoors. What is there to be afraid of, anyhow?" Virginia asked.
"Nothing in the world but loneliness," her husband replied.
"Well, I must get used to that, you know. I can begin now," Virginia said lightly.
But for all her courage, she watched him drive away with a sob in her throat. In all the universe there was nothing save a glaring sunlight and an endless cringing of yellow, wind-threshed grass.
Asher Aydelot had come here with half a dozen other young fellows, all of whom took up claims along Grass River. Six months later Jim Shirley had come to the settlement with a like company who extended the free-holdings until it was seven miles by the winding of the river from Aydelot's claim on the northwest down the river to Shirley's claim on the southeast.
Eighteen months later only two men were left in the Grass River valley, Aydelot and Shirley. The shorter trail as the crow flies between their claims was marked by a golden thread of sunflowers. At the third bend of the winding stream a gentle ripple of ground rose high enough to hide the cabin lights from each other that otherwise might have given a neighborly comfort to the two lone settlers.
Shirley's cabin stood on a tiny swell of ground, mark of a one-time island, set in a wide bend in the river that was itself a natural fireguard for most of the circle of the premises.
The house was snug as a squirrel's nest. Before it was a strip of white clover, as green and fresh looking as if it were on the banks of Clover Creek in Ohio. Above the door a plain board bore the one word, "Cloverdale."
Jim Shirley stood watching Asher coming down the trail against the wind, followed by the big shepherd dog, Pilot, who had bounded off to meet him.
"Hello! How did you get away on a day like this?" he called, as the team drew near.
"Why, you old granny!" Asher stopped here.
Both men had been on the Kansas plains long enough not to mind the wind. It flashed into Asher's mind that Jim was hoping to see his wife with him, and he measured anew the loneliness of the man's life.
"Most too rude for ladies just yet, although I didn't like to leave Virginia alone."
"What could possibly harm her? Your fireguard's done, double done; there's no water to drown in, no Indian to frighten, no wild beast to enter, no white man, in God knows how many hundred miles. Just nothing to be afraid of."
"Yes, that's it—just nothing. And it's enough to make even a braver woman afraid. It's the eternal vast nothingness, when the very silence cries out at you. It's the awful loneliness of the plains that makes the advance attack in this fight with the wilderness. Don't we both know that?"
"I reckon we do, but we got over it, and so will Mrs. Aydelot."
"How do you know that?" Asher inquired eagerly. "I believe she could hardly keep back the tears till I got away."
"Then why didn't you get away sooner? I know she will get over it, because she's as good a woman as we are men, and we stood for it."
"Well, here's your plow. Better get your guard thrown up. I can smell smoke now. There's a prairie fire sweeping in on this wind somewhere. There's a storm brewing, too. Remember what a fight we had with fire a year ago?"
Asher was helping to put Jim's team in the harness.
"Yes, you saved your well and a few other little things. But you've got your grit, you darned Buckeye, to hold on and start again from the ashes. And now you have your wife here. You are lucky," Jim declared.
"Where's that broken plow of yours? Is it bolt or weld? Maybe I can mend it." Asher was casting about for tools.
"It's bolt. Everything is on the stable shelves," Jim called back against the wind, as he drove the plow deep in the black soil. "Be sure you put 'em back when you are through with 'em, too."
"Poor Jim!" Asher said to himself with a smile. "The artist in him makes him keep the place in order. He'd stop to hang up his coat and vest if he had to fight a mad bull. Poor judgment puts a good many tragedies into lives as well as stage villain types of crime."
And then Asher thought of Virginia, and wondered what she was doing through the long afternoon. He was whistling softly with a smile in his eyes as Jim Shirley made the tenth round of the premises and stopped opposite the stable door.
"Hey, Asher, come out and see the sky now," he called. "It's prairie fire and equinoctial storm combined."
Asher hurried out to see the dull southwest heavens shutting off the sunlight out of which raged a wind searing the sky to a dun gray.
"Don't stand there staring, you idiot. Why don't you get your plowing done?" he cried to Shirley.
Shirley began to loose the trace-chain from the plow.
"That strip is wide enough now," he declared. "I've got a clover guard, anyhow. I don't need to back-fire like my neighbors do."
As Asher untied his ponies and climbed into the wagon, Jim held their reins.
"Stop a minute. Let a single man offer you a word of advice, will you?" he asked.
"All right, I need advice," Asher smiled down on Jim's earnest face.
"Then heed it, too. No use to tell you to take care of your wife. You'll do that to a fault. But don't make any mistake about Mrs. Asher Aydelot. She went through Rebel and Union lines once to save your life. Don't doubt her strength to hold her own here as soon as the first fight is over. She is like that Kentucky thoroughbred of hers; she's got endurance as well as grace and beauty."
"Bless you, Jim," Asher said, as he clasped Shirley's hand. "I wish you had a wife."
"Well, they are something of an anxiety, too. Hustle home ahead of the storm. I've always wished that bluff at the deep bend didn't hide us from each other's sight. I'd like to blast it out."
Asher Aydelot hurried northward ahead of the hot winds and deepening shadows of the coming storm. And all the time, in spite of Jim's comforting words, an anxiety grew and grew. The miles seemed endless, the heavens darkened, and the wind suddenly gave a gasp and died away, leaving a hot, blank stillness everywhere.
Meanwhile, Virginia, alone in the cabin, had fallen asleep from sheer nerve weariness. When she awoke, it was late in the afternoon. The screaming outside had ceased, but the whir and whine were still going on, and the blaring light was toned by the dust-filled air.
"I was only tired," Virginia said to herself. "Now I am rested, I don't mind the wind."
She went out to watch the trail for Asher's coming. He was not in sight, so she came inside again, but nothing there could interest her.
"I'll go out and wait awhile," she thought.
Tying a veil over her head, she shut the cabin door and sat down outside. The wind died suddenly away, the trail was lifeless, and all the plain cut by the trail as well. Then the solitude of the thing took up the flight where the wind had left off.
"How can I ever stand this," Virginia cried, springing up. "But Asher stood it before I came, or even promised to come. No knight of the old chivalry days ever endured such hardships as the claimholders on these Kansas plains must endure. But it takes women to make homes. They can never, never win here without wives. I could go back to Virginia if I would." She shut her teeth tightly, and the small hands were clenched. "But I won't do it. I'll stay here with Asher Aydelot. Other men and women as eager as we are will come soon. We can wait, and some day, Oh, some day, we'll not miss what the Thaines lost by the war and the Aydelots lost by the Thaines, for we'll have a prince's holdings on these desolate plains!"
She stood with her hands clasped looking with far-seeing dark eyes down the long trail by the dry river bed, like a goddess of Conquest on a vast untamed prairie.
A sudden sweep of the wind aroused her, and the loneliness of the plains rose up again.
"I'll get Juno and follow the trail till I meet Asher. I can't get lost where there's nothing but space," she said aloud, as she hurried to the stable and led out the petted thoroughbred.
Horses are very human creatures, responding not only to the moods of their masters, but to the conditions that give these moods. The West was no kinder to the eastern-bred horse than to the eastern-bred man. All day Juno had plunged about the stable and pawed the hard earth floor in sheer nervousness. She leaped out of doors now at Virginia's call, as eager for comfort as a homesick child.
"We'll chase off and meet Asher, darling."
Even the soft voice the mare had heard all her days did not entirely soothe her. As Virginia mounted the wind flung shut the stable door with a bang. Juno leaped as from a gunshot, and dashed away up the river to the northwest. Her rider tried in vain to change her course and quiet her spirit. The mare only surged madly forward, as if bent on outrunning the tantalizing, grinding wind. With the sense of freedom, and with the boundlessness of the plains, some old instinct of the unbridled days of by-gone generations woke to life and power in her, and with the bit between her teeth, she swept away in unrestrained speed.
Virginia was a skilled horsewoman, and she had no fear for herself, so she held the reins and kept her place.
"I can go wherever you can, you foolish Juno," she cried, giving herself up to the exhilarating ride. "We'll stay together to the end of the race, and we will get it out of our systems once for all, and come back 'plains-broke.'"
Beyond a westward sweeping curve of the river's course the chase became a climb up a long slope that grew steeper and steeper, cutting off the view of the stream. Here Juno's speed slackened, then dropped into a steady canter, as she listened for a command to turn back.
"We'll go on to the edge of that bluff, lady, now we are here, and see what is across the river," Virginia said. "Then we will hurry home to Asher and prairie hay."
When they came at last over a rough shale outcrop to the highest headland, the river bed lay between its base and a barren waste of sand dunes, with broad grassy regions beyond them spreading southward. The view from the bluff's top was magnificent. Virginia held Juno to the place and looked in wonder at the vast southwest on this strange September afternoon. Across a reach of level land, miles wide, a prairie fire was sweeping in the majesty of mastery. The lurid flames leaped skyward, while roll on surging roll of black smoke-waves, with folds of gray ashes smothering between, poured out along the horizon. Beyond the fire was the dark blue storm-cloud, banded across the front by the hail mark of coppery green.
Virginia sat enchanted by the grandeur of the scene. The veil had fallen from her head, and with white face and fascinated eyes, she watched the glowing fury, a graceful rider on a graceful black horse, on the crest of the lone headland outlined against the sky.
Suddenly the terror of it broke upon her. She was miles from the cabin with its double fireguard. Asher had said such fires could leap rivers. Between her and safety were many level banks where the sandy stream bed was narrow, and many grassy stretches where there was no water at all.
Distance, storm wind, fire and hail, all seemed ready to close down upon her, making her senses reel. One human being, alone before the wrath of Nature! In all the years that followed, she never forgot that scene. For in that moment a whisper came from somewhere out of the void, "The Eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms," and she clasped her hands in a wordless prayer.
The wind that had been cruel all day grew suddenly kind. A dead calm held the air in a hot stillness. Then with a whip and a whirl, it swung its course about and began to pour cool and strong out of the northwest.
"The wind is changing," Virginia cried, as she felt its chill and saw the flame and smoke tower upward and bend back from the way. "It is blowing the fire to the east, to the southeast. But, will it catch Asher? Oh, you good Wind, blow south! blow south!" she pleaded, as she dashed down the long slope for the homeward race.
* * * * *
When Asher reached his claim, he looked in vain for Virginia's face as he passed the cabin window. He hurried the ponies into the corral, and the wagon under the lean-to beside the stable, half conscious that something was missing inside. Then he hastened to the cabin, but Virginia was not there.
"She may be in the stable." He half whispered the words in his anxiety.
The ponies in the corral were greedily eating their hay, but the black mare Juno was gone. As Asher turned toward the house, he caught the low roaring of the tempest and felt a rush of cool wind from somewhere. A huge storm-wave of yellow dust was rolling out of the southwest; beyond it the heavens were copper-green, and back of that, midnight darkness; while, borne onward by its force, low waves of prairie fire were swept along the ground.
Down at the third bend of the river where long growths overhung the stream, the flames crossed easily. Even as Asher Aydelot watched the storm cloud, long tongues of fire came licking up the valley toward him, not a towering height, but a swift crawling destruction which he looked at with unseeing eyes, for his only thought was for Virginia.
"How could I have missed her if she started to meet me? Yet, where can she be now?" he groaned.
The hungry flames gnawed vainly about his broad fireguard, then wavered back and forth along the south prairie, while he watched them under the fascination the mastery of the elements can exert. He turned at last from the fire and storm to see Juno and her rider swinging down the northwest prairie, keeping close to the river line before the chill north wind.
"Oh, Virgie, Virgie," he cried, as she slipped from the saddle and he caught her in his arms. "I've lived a hundred years since I left you this afternoon. What made you run away?"
In the joy of her safe return, he forgot the fire.
"Why, don't you see the wind is from the north? And it is blowing everything south now? I saw it begin away up the river. Did that guard really keep off that thing I saw from the high bluff up yonder?"
"I put it there to do it, and I'd take the chances. Awful as it is, it can't do anything but burn, and there's nothing here to burn. If it hadn't been there, everything would have been gone and you would have come back to a pile of ashes if the wind had left a pile."
"And you put your puny hands to the plow handles and say to that awful fury, 'So far, and no farther. This is my home.' You, one little human being!" Virginia's eyes were glowing with wonder at the miracle.
"Yes, with my puny hands. Me—a little man," Asher smiled quizzically, as he spread his broad brown hands before his face and drew himself up to his full six feet of height. "Only I say, 'our home.' But I was so scared about you, I forgot to notice the change in the wind. The fire is chasing to the south, and the hailstorm has veered off down that stream this side of those three headlands over there. The wind gives and the wind takes away. You can't plow a guard around it."
They sat down by the cabin door to watch the storm and flame blown far away in whirls of glaring light and surging cloud, until the rain at last drowned all the fury and washed it over the edge of the south horizon out of the world.
"Sometime we'll plant hedges and forest trees and checker the country with windbreaks until days like this will belong only to an old pioneer's memory," Asher said, as the storm swept wide away.
"Then, I'm glad I came early enough to see this. I'm getting 'plains-broke' along with Juno. Isn't it wonderful to be a real pioneer? Back in Virginia we were two centuries of generations away from the first settlers," Virginia exclaimed.
But Asher did not answer. He was thinking of Jim Shirley's declaration: "She's got endurance as well as grace and beauty."
Also, we will make promise. So long as the Blood endures, I shall know that your will is mine; ye shall feel that my strength is yours. —A Song of the English.
Virginia Aydelot soon grew brown as a berry in the tanning prairie winds, and it seemed impossible that this strong young woman of the sod cabin, with her simple dress and her cheeks abloom, could have been the dainty child of the old Southern mansion house.
No other autumn had ever seemed quite so beautiful to the Aydelots as this, their first autumn together. Life was before them with its call to victory. Youth and health, exuberant spirits and love were theirs. Theirs, too, was the great boundless world of mists and mirages, of rainbow tinted grasses and opal heavens, where no two sunsets were ever the same. They could laugh at their poverty, believing in a time when Ease and Plenty would rule the land where now they must fight for the bare necessities of existence, picturing life not as it was then with its many hardships, but as it would be in a future day when the real world whose last outpost they had left almost fifty miles to the eastward, should move toward them and help to people the prairies.
All the week days were full of duties, but every Sabbath morning found the three settlers of the valley making a prairie sanctuary of the Aydelot cabin. The elder Aydelots had not united with any church, but Asher and Jim, when they were only boys, had been converted at a Methodist revival in Cloverdale. It was an old-fashioned kind of religious leading, but it was strong enough to hold the two for all the years that followed. Virginia had been reared an Episcopalian, but the men out-voted her and declared that the Aydelot home was the Sunflower Inn for six days in the week, but on the seventh it was the "First Methodist Church of the Conference of the Prairies."
There was no levity in its service, however, and He who dwelleth not in temples made with men's hands blessed with his own benediction of peace and trust and courage the three who set up their altar to Him in this far-away place.
On Sabbath afternoons they explored the sand dunes and grassy levels up and down the river. Sometimes they rode northward to the main trail in hope of sighting some prairie schooner coming hitherward, but not once that season did the trail hold a human being for them.
October slipped into November with a gradual sharpening of the frosty air. Everything had been made as snug as possible for the winter. The corrals were enlarged for the stock. The houses and stables were thatched against the cold and storms; and fuel and food were carefully stored. But November was almost passed before the end of the bright and sometimes even balmy days.
"We must have Jim up to the Sunflower Inn for Thanksgiving dinner. Might as well invite the whole neighborhood," Asher said one evening, as he helped Virginia with the supper dishes.
"I'm planning a real dinner, too," his wife declared, "just like old Mammy Diane used to cook. You couldn't tell it from hers if you'd ever eaten one of her spreads."
"I suppose it will taste about as near like one of Diane's meals as you will look like the cook that made her meals," Asher answered.
"Well, I'm getting along that way. Look at my tanned arms now. There's a regular dead line, a perfect fireguard at the elbow. And my muscles, Mammy Diane would say, 'is jus' monst'ous.'"
Virginia pushed back her sleeve to show the well-marked line where white above met tan below.
"Jim will think anything is better than eating alone out of his own grub box, and your dinner will be a feast," Asher said, opening the door to carry out the dish water. "What do you think of this?"
A gust of cold rain swished in as the door fell open.
"Our rain is here, at last. Maybe it will bring snow for Thanksgiving, and we could have a touch of New England here," Virginia said.
The pelting rain and deepening chill made the little home a very snug nest that night. There was only one stove to warm the house, but they kept up a fiction of parlor and dining room, kitchen and bed chamber. Even the library was there, although it encroached dreadfully on the parlor, bedroom and kitchen, all three, for it consisted of space enough for two chairs, one footstool, and a tiny lamp-stand, beside which they spent their evenings.
"Who's likely to drop in tonight, and what's the program for the evening: charades, music, readings, dancing, cribbage, or political speeches?" Asher inquired.
They had invented all sorts of pastimes, with make-believe audiences, such as little children create for their plays. For these two were children in a big child world. The wilderness is never grown up. It is Nature's little one waiting to be led on and disciplined to mature uses. Asher and Virginia had already peopled the valley with imaginary settlers, each one of a certain type, and they adapted their pastime to the particular neighbors whom they chose to invite for the evening. How little the helpless folk in the city, bored with their own dullness, and dependent on others for amusement—how little could such as these cope with the loneliness of the home on the plains, or comprehend the resourcefulness of the home-makers there!
"Oh, let's just spend the evening alone. It's too stormy for the Arnolds and Archibalds beyond the Deep Bend, and the Spoopendykes have relatives from the East and the Gilliwigs are all down with colds."
Virginia had tucked herself down in the one rocking chair, with her feet on the footstool.
"It's such a nice night to be to ourselves. Watch the rain washing that west window. It's getting worse. I always think of Jim on nights like this."
"So do I," Asher said, as he sat down in the armed chair he had made for himself of cottonwood limbs with a gunny sack seat. "He's all alone with his dog these dark nights, and loneliness cuts to the heart of a man like Jim. I'm glad I have you, Virginia. I couldn't do without you now. The rain is getting heavier every minute. Sounds like it was thumping on the door. Listen to that wind!"
"Tell me about Jim, Asher. What made him come out here anyhow?" Virginia asked.
"I don't know all the story. Jim has never seemed to want to tell me, and I've never cared to ask him," Asher replied. "When we were away together at school, he was in love with one of the prettiest girls that Ohio ever grew. She lived in the country up the valley from Cloverdale. Her name was Alice Leigh, and she was a whole cut above the neighborhood. Jim said she was an artist, could do wonderful things with a brush and she was just wild to go somewhere and take lessons.
"Jim was planning always how to give her the opportunity to do it, but her mother, who owned a lot of land for that country and could afford to send Alice away to study, couldn't see any dollar sign in it, so she kept her daughter on the farm."
Asher paused and looked at Virginia. His own happiness made his voice tremble as he went on.
"He has a brother Tank. I suppose his real name is Thaddeus, or Tantalus, or something like it; I never knew, and I never liked him well enough to ask. Tank was a black-eyed little runt whom none of the boys liked, a grasping cuss, younger than Jim, and as selfish as Jim is kind.
"Just before I came West to scout the Indians off the map, Jim came back to school one time so unlike himself that I made him tell me what was the matter. It was Tank, he said, who was making trouble for him up in the Leigh neighborhood, and he was so grieved and unhappy, I wouldn't ask any more about it. I left for the West soon after that. When I went back to Cloverdale, Tank Shirley had married Alice Leigh and her mother's farm, and Jim had left the country. I ran on to him by accident up at Carey's Crossing when I came West again, but I've never heard him say a word about the matter, and, of course, I don't mention it, although I believe it would do Jim good if he could bring himself to tell me about it. He's never been quite the same since. He has a little tendency to lung trouble, which the plains air is taking out of him, but he's had a bad attack of pneumonia, and it's an old enemy of his, as it always is to a man of his physique. He's a good worker, but lacks judgment to make his work count. Doesn't really seem to have much to work for. But he's a friend to the last ditch. Just hear the rain!"
"It seems to be knocking against the door again," Virginia said, "and how the wind does howl! Poor Jim!"
"Listen to that! Sounds like something loose against the window. There's something out there." Asher started up with the words.
Something white had seemed to splash up against the window and drop back again. It splashed up a second time, and fell again. Asher hurried to the door, and as he opened it, Pilot, the big white-throated dog from the Shirley claim, came bounding in, so wet and shaggy he seemed to bring all the storm in with him.
"Why, Pilot, what's the news?" Asher asked. "Jim's sent him, Virgie. He's done this trick often."
Pilot slipped to the warm stove and shook a whole shower out of his long, wet hair, while Asher carefully untied a little leather bag fastened to the collar under the dog's throat.
"You brave fellow. You've come all the way in the rain to bring me this."
He held up a little metal box from which he took a bit of paper. Bending close to the lamp, he read the message it contained.
"Something is wrong, Virginia. He says, 'I need you.' What's the matter with Jim, Pilot? Come here and get up in the chair!"
The dog whimpered and sat still.
"Come out here, then! Come on, I tell you!" Asher started as if to open the door, but the dog did not move.
"He's not out of doors, and he isn't sitting up in a chair. Tell me, now, Pilot, exactly where Jim is! Jim, mind you!"
The dog looked at him with watchful eyes.
"Where's Jim? Poor Jim!" Asher repeated, and Pilot, with a sorrowful yelp, stretched himself at full length beside the stove.
"Jim's sick, then?"
Pilot wagged his tail understandingly.
"Virgie, Jim needs me. I must go to him." Asher looked at his wife.
"If Jim needs you, you'll need me," she replied.
"And we'll both need Pilot. So we'll keep all the human beings together," Asher said, as he helped his wife to fasten her heavy cloak and tie a long old-fashioned nubia about her head.
Then they went out into the darkness and the chilling rain, as neighbor to neighbor, answering this cry for help.
Pilot ran far ahead of them and was waiting with a dog's welcome when they reached Shirley's cabin. But the master, lying where he caught the chill draught from the open door, was rigid with cold. A sudden attack of pneumonia had left him helpless. And tonight, Pilot, doing a dog's best, did not understand the danger of leaving doors open, and of joyously shaking his wet fur down on the sick man to whom help was coming none too soon.
"Hello, Jim! We're all here, doctor, nurse, cook, and hired man, and the little dog under the wagon," Asher said cheerily, bending over Jim's bunk. "That pup pretty nearly killed you with kindness, didn't he?"
Jim smiled wanly, then looked blankly away and lay very still.
The plains frontier had no use for the one talent folk. People must know how to take care of life there. Asher's first memory of Virginia was when she bent over him, fighting the fever in a prison hospital. He knew her talent for helping, and he had fairly estimated her quick ingenuity for this sod house emergency. But a new vision of the plains life came to her as she watched him, gentle-handed, swift, but unhurried, never giving an inch to the enemy in fighting with death for the life of Jim Shirley.
"He's safe from that congestion," Asher said when the morning broke. "But his fever will come on now."
"Where did you learn to do all these things for sick people?" Virginia asked.
"Partly from a hospital nurse I had in the war. Also, it's a part of the game here. I learned a few things fighting the cholera in sixty-seven. We must look everything on the frontier squarely in the face, danger and death along with the rest, just as we have to do everywhere else, only we have to depend on each other more here. Hold on there, Jim!"
Asher sprang toward Shirley, who was sitting upright, staring wildly at the two. Then a struggle began, for the sick man, crazed with delirium, was bent on driving his helpers from the cabin. When he lay back exhausted at length, Asher turned to his wife.
"One of us must go to Carey's Crossing for a doctor. You can't hold Jim. It's all I can do to hold him. But it's a long way to Carey's. Can you go?"
"I'll try," Virginia replied. And Asher remembered what Jim had said on the windy September day: "She's as good a woman as we are men."
"You must take Pilot with you and leave him at home. You can't get lost, for you know the way up to the main trail, and that runs straight to the Crossing. Dr. Carey knows Jim, and he will come if he can, I am sure. He pulled Jim back once a year or two ago when the pneumonia had him. Heaven keep you safe, you brave little soul. Jim may turn the trick for us some day."
He kissed her good-by and watched her gallop away on her errand of mercy.
"The men will have all the credit by and by for settling this country. Little glory will come to their wives," he thought. "And yet, the women make anchor for every hearthstone, and share in every deed of daring and every test of endurance. God make me worthy of such a wife!"
Virginia Aydelot had spoken truly when she declared that the war had left the Thaines little except inherited pride and the will to do as they pleased. Inherited tendencies take varying turns. What had made a reformer of old Jean Aydelot made a narrow bigot of his descendant, Francis. What had made a proud, exclusive autocrat of Jerome Thaine, in Virginia Thaine developed into a pride of conquest for the good of others. It was this pride and the Thaine will to do as she pleased in defiance of the prairie perils that sent her now on this errand of mercy for a neighbor in need. And she took little measure of the reality of the journey. But she was prudent enough to stop at the Sunflower Inn and make ready for it. She slipped on a warm jacket under her heavy cloak, and put on her thickest gloves and overshoes. She wound a long red scarf about her neck and swathed her head in the gray nubia. Then she mounted her horse for her long, hard ride.
The little sod house with all its plainness seemed very cosy as she took leave of it, and the woman instinct for home made its outcry in her when she turned her face resolutely from its sheltering warmth and felt the force of the north wind whipping mercilessly upon her. But she steeled herself to meet the cold, and her spirits rose with the effort.
"You are a mean little wind. Not half as big as the September zephyrs. Do your worst, you can't scare me," she cried, tucking her head down against its biting breath.
Upon the main trail the snow that had fallen after midnight deepened in the lower places as the wind whirled it from the prairie swells. It was not smooth traveling, although the direction of the trail was clear enough at first.
Virginia's heart bounded hopefully as Juno covered mile after mile with that persistent, steady canter that means everything good for a long ride. But the open plains were bitterly cold and the wind grew fiercer as the hours passed. High spirits and hope began to give place to determination and endurance. Virginia shut her teeth in a dogged resolve not to give up. Indeed, she dared not give up. She must go on. A life depended on her now, and two lives might be forfeited if she let this unending wind chill her to forgetfulness.
And so, alone in a white cruelty of solitary land, bounded only by the gray cruelty of the sky, with a dimming trail before her under a deeper snowfall, and with long miles behind her, she struggled on.
She tried to think of everything cheerful and good. She tried to find comfort in the help she would take to Jim. Truly, she was not nearly so cold now and she was very weary and a wee bit sleepy. A tendency to droop in the saddle was overcoming her. She roused herself quickly, and with a jerk at the reins plunged forward at a gallop.
"It will take the stupor out of me," she cried.
Then the reins drooped and the fight with the numbing cold began again.
"I wonder how far along I am. I must be nearly there. I remember we lost sight of Carey's Crossing soon after we left last September. Some swell of ground cut us off quickly—and I've never seen a human being since then, except Asher and Jim Shirley and Pilot," she added.
"The snow is so much heavier right here. It varies so. I've passed half a dozen changes, but this is the deepest yet. I'm sure I can see the town beyond this slope ahead. Why! where's the trail, anyhow?"
It was nearing mid-afternoon. Neither horse nor rider had had food nor water, save once when Juno drank at a crossing. Virginia sat still, conscious suddenly that she has missed the trail somewhere.
"It isn't far, I know. Could I have left it when I took that gallop?" she asked herself.
She was wide awake now, for the reality of the situation was upon her, and she searched madly for some sign of the trail. In that level prairie sea there was no sign to show where the trail might lie. The gray sky was pitiless still, and with no guiding ray of sunshine the points of the compass failed, and the brave woman lost all sense of direction.
"I won't give up," she said at last, despairingly, "but we may as well rest a little before we try again."
She had dropped down a decided slope and hurried to a group of low bushes in a narrow draw. While the wind was sliding the snow endlessly back and forth on the higher ground, the bushes were moveless. Slipping to the ground beside them, she stamped her feet and swung her arms until the blood began to warm her chilled body.
"It is so much warmer here. But what next? Oh, dear Father, help me, help me!" she cried in the depth of her need.
And again the same clear whisper that had spoken to her on the headland when she watched the September prairie fire, a voice from out of the vast immensity of the Universe, came to her soul with its calm strength.
"The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."
How many a time in the days of winning the wilderness did the blessed promise come to the pioneer women who braved the frontier to build the homes of a conquering nation.
"I can't try that blind game again for awhile," Virginia said to herself. "I'll run up a distress signal; maybe somewhere help is coming to me. I know now how Jim felt all alone with only a dog's instinct to depend on. I'm glad I've tried to help him, even if I have failed."
She unwound the long red scarf from her neck and bound her nubia closer about her throat. Then bending the tallest bush that she could reach she fastened the bright fabric to its upper limbs and let it swing to its place again. The scarf spread a little in the breeze and hung above her, a dumb signal of distress where help was not.