At once, from somewhere on Parade, there came the clear note of a bugle, which seemed to draw the attention of all. We could see, ascending the great flagstaff at the end of its halyard, the broad folds of the flag. Following this was hoisted a hoop or rim of torches, which paused in such position that the folds of the flag were well illuminated. A moment of silence came at that, and then a clapping of hands from all about the Parade as the banner floated out, and the voices of men, deep throated, greeting the flag. Again the bands broke into the strains of the national anthem; but immediately they swung into a rollicking cavalry air. As they played, all four of the bands marched toward the center of the Parade, and halted at the dancing pavilion, where the lighter instruments selected for the orchestra took their places at the head of the floor.
The throngs at the galleries began to lessen, and from every available roof of the Post there poured out incredible numbers of gayly-dressed ladies and men in uniform or evening garb, each one masked, and all given over fully to the spirit of the hour.
"To-night," said Kitty to me, "one may be faithless, and be shriven by the morning sun. Isn't it funny how these things go? Such a lot of fuss is made in the world by ignoring the great fact that man is by nature both gregarious and polygamous. Believe me, there is much in this doctrine of the Mormons, out there in the West!"
"Yes, look at Benjie, for instance," I answered. "It is the spell of new faces."
"You see a face on the street, in the church, passing you, to be gone the next instant forever," she mused. "Once I did myself. I was mad to follow the man. I saw him again, and was yet madder. I saw him yet again, and made love to him madly, and then—"
"You married him," said I, knowing perfectly well the devotion of these two.
"Yes," said Mrs. Kitty, sighing contentedly, "it was Matt, of course. There's something in that 'Whom God hath joined together.' But it ought to be God, and not man, that does the joining."
"Suppose we talk philosophy rather than dance."
"Not I! We are here to-night to be young. After all, Jack, you are young, and so is—"
"Yes, and so is Ellen."
The floor now was beginning to fill with dancers. There moved before us a kaleidoscope of gay colors, over which breathed the fragrance of soft music. A subtle charm emanated from these surroundings. Music, the sight and odor of sweet flowers, the sound of pleasant waters, the presence of things beautiful—these have ever had their effect on me. So now I felt come upon me a sort of soft content, and I was no longer moved to talk philosophy.
Sighing, I said to myself that I was young. I turned to speak to my hostess, but she was gone on business of her own. So there I stood for half an hour, biting my thumb. I had as yet seen nothing of the mysterious Ellen, although many a score of eyes, in license of the carnival, had flashed through their masks at me, and many others as their owners passed by in the dance or promenade near where I stood. Presently I felt a tug at my sleeve.
"Come with me," whispered a voice.
It was Kitty. We passed to the opposite side of the dancing floor, and halted at the front of a wide marquee, whose flaps were spread to cover a long row of seats.
"Count them," whispered Kitty hoarsely. "There are twelve!"
And so indeed there were, twelve beautiful young girls, as one might pronounce, even though all were masked with half-face dominos. Half of them were dressed in white and half in black, and thus they alternated down the row. Twelve hands handled divers fans. Twelve pairs of eyes looked out, eyes merry, or challenging, or mysterious, one could not tell. About these young belles gathered the densest throng of all the crowd. Some gentlemen appeared to know certain of the beauties, but these had hard work to keep their places, for continually others came, and one after another was introduced in turn, all down the line, as presently it was to be my fortune to be.
"Is she here, Mrs. Kitty?" I whispered.
"You shall guess. Come." And so, as occasion offered, I was put through this ordeal, by no means an easy one. At each fair charmer, as I bowed, I looked with what directness I dared, to see if I might penetrate the mask and so foil Kitty in her amiable intentions. This occupation caused me promptly to forget most of the names which I heard, and which I doubt not were all fictitious. As we passed out at the foot of the row I recalled that I had not heard the name of Ellen.
"Now then, which one is she?" I queried of my hostess.
"Silly, do you want me to put your hand in hers? You are now on your own resources. Play the game." And the next moment she again was gone.
I had opportunity, without rudeness, the crowd so pressing in behind me, to glance once more up the line. I saw, or thought I saw, just a chance glance toward where I stood, near the foot of the Row of Mystery, as they called it. I looked a second time, and then all doubt whatever vanished.
If this girl in the black laces, with the gold comb in her hair, and the gold-shot little shoes just showing at the edge of her gown, and the red rose at her hair, held down by the comb—half hidden by the pile of locks caught up by the ribbon of the mask—if this girl were not the mysterious Ellen, then indeed must Ellen look well to her laurels, for here, indeed, was a rival for her!
I began to edge through the ranks of young men who gathered there, laughing, beseeching, imploring, claiming. The sparkle of the scene was in my veins. The breath of the human herd assembled, sex and sex, each challenging the other, gregarious, polygamous.
I did not walk; the music carried me before her. And so I bowed and murmured, "I have waited hours for my hostess to present me to Miss Ellen." (I mumbled the rest of some imaginary name, since I had heard none.)
The girl pressed the tip of her fan against her teeth and looked at me meditatively.
"And ours, of course, is this dance," I went on.
"If I could only remember all the names—" she began hesitatingly.
"I was introduced as Jack C., of Virginia."
"Yes? And in what arm?"
"Cavalry," I replied promptly. "Do you not see the yellow?" I gestured toward the facings. "You who belong to the Army ought to know."
"Why do you think I belong to the Army?" she asked, in a voice whose low sweetness was enough to impel any man to catch the mask from her face and throw it down the nearest well.
"You belong to the Army, and to Virginia," I said, "because you asked me what is my arm of the service; and because your voice could come from nowhere but Virginia. Now since I have come so far to see you and have found you out so soon, why do you not confess that you are Miss Ellen? Tell me your name, so that I may not be awkward!"
"We have no names to-night," she answered. "But I was just thinking; there is no Jack C. in the Gazette who comes from Virginia and who wears a captain's straps. I do not know who you are."
"At least the game then is fair," said I, disappointed. "But I promise you that some time I shall see you face to face, and without masks. To-morrow—"
"Tut, tut!" she reproved. "There is no to-morrow!"
I looked down on her as I stood, and a certain madness of youth seized hold upon me. I knew that when she rose she would be just tall enough; that she would be round, full, perfect woman in every line of her figure; that her hair would be some sort of dark brown in the daylight; that her eyes would also be of some sort of darkness, I knew not what, for I could not see them fully through the domino. I could see the hair piled back from the nape of as lovely a neck as ever caught a kiss. I could see at the edge of the mask that her ear was small and close to the head; could see that her nose must be straight, and that it sprang from the brow strongly, with no weak indentation. The sweep of a strong, clean chin was not to be disguised, and at the edge of the mask I caught now and then the gleam of white, even teeth, and the mocking smile of red, strongly curved lips, hid by her fan at the very moment when I was about to fix them in my memory, so that I might see them again and know. I suspect she hid a smile, but her eyes looked up at me grandly and darkly. Nineteen, perhaps twenty, I considered her age to be; gentle, and yet strong, with character and yet with tenderness, I made estimate that she must be; and that she had more brains than to be merely a lay figure I held sure, because there was something, that indefinable magnetism, what you like to call it, which is not to be denied, which assured me that here indeed was a woman not lightly to accept, nor lightly to be forgotten. Ah, now I was seized and swept on in a swift madness. Still the music sang on.
"My hostess said it would be a lottery to-night in this Row of Mystery," I went on, "but I do not find it so."
"All life is lottery," she said in answer.
"And lotteries are lawful when one wins the capital prize. One stretches out his hand in the dark. But some one must win. I win now. The game of masks is a fine one. I am vastly pleased with it. Some day I shall see you without any mask. Come. We must dance. I could talk better if we were more alone."
As I live, she rose and put her hand upon my arm with no further argument; why, I cannot say, perhaps because I had allowed no other man to stand thus near her.
We stepped out upon the crowded floor. I was swept away by it all, by the waltz, by the stars above, by the moon, by the breath of women and the scent of their hair, and the perfume of roses, by the passion of living, by youth, youth! Ah, God! ah, God!—I say to you, it was sweet. Whatever life brings to us of age and sorrow, let us remember our youth, and say it was worth the while. Had I never lived but that one night, it had been worth while.
She danced as she stood, with the grace of a perfect young creature, and the ease of a perfect culture as well. I was of no mind to look further. If this was not Ellen, then there was no Ellen there for me!
Around and around we passed, borne on the limpid shining stream of the waltz music, as melancholy as it was joyous; music that was young; for youth is ever full of melancholy and wonder and mystery. We danced. Now and again I saw her little feet peep out. I felt her weight rest light against my arm. I caught the indescribable fragrance of her hair. A gem in the gold comb now and then flashed out; and now and again I saw her eyes half raised, less often now, as though the music made her dream. But yet I could have sworn I saw a dimple in her cheek through the mask, and a smile of mockery on her lips.
I have said that her gown was dark, black laces draping over a close fitted under bodice; and there was no relief to this somberness excepting that in the front of the bodice were many folds of lacy lawn, falling in many sheer pleats, edge to edge, gathered at the waist by a girdle confined by a simple buckle of gold. Now as I danced, myself absorbed so fully that I sought little analysis of impressions so pleasing, I became conscious dimly of a faint outline of some figure in color, deep in these folds of lacy lawn, an evanescent spot or blur of red, which, to my imagination, assumed the outline of a veritable heart, as though indeed the girl's heart quite shone through! If this were a trick I could not say, but for a long time I resisted it. Meantime, as chance offered in the dance—to which she resigned herself utterly—I went on with such foolish words as men employ.
"Ah, nonsense!" she flashed back at me at last. "Discover something new. If men but knew how utterly transparent they are! I say that to-night we girls are but spirits, to be forgot to-morrow. Do not teach us to forget before to-morrow comes."
"I shall not forget," I insisted.
"Then so much the worse."
"But you must."
"I will not. I shall not allow—"
"How obstinate a brute a man can be," she remonstrated.
"If you are not nice I shall go at once."
"I dreamed I saw a red heart," said I. "But that cannot have been, for I see you have no heart."
"No," she laughed. "It was only a dream."
"To-night, then, we only dream."
She was silent at this. "I knew you from the very first," I reiterated.
"What, has Kitty talked?"
It was my turn to laugh. "Ah, ha!" I said. "I thought no names were to be mentioned! At least, if Kitty has talked, I shall not betray her. But I knew you directly, as the most beautiful girl in all the city. Kitty said that much."
"Oh, thank thee, kind sir!"
"Then you knew I was a Quaker? Kitty has talked again? I had forgotten it to-night, and indeed forgotten that Quakers do not dance. I said I ought not to come here to-night, but now I see Fate said I must. I would not have lived all my life otherwise. To-night I hardly know who I am."
"Officer and gentleman," she smiled.
The chance compliment came to me like a blow. I was not an officer. I was masking, mumming, I, John Cowles, who had no right. Once more, whither was my folly carrying me? Suddenly I felt saddened.
"I shall call you The Sorrowful Knight," chided my fair companion."
"Quite as well as any name, my very good friend."
"I am not your friend."
"No, and indeed, perhaps, never may be."
Her spirit caught the chill of this, and at once she motioned the edge of the floor.
"Now I must go," she said. "There are very many to whom I am promised." I looked at her and could very well believe the truth of that. Many things revolved in my mind. I wondered whether if after all Kitty had had her way; wondered if this was the mysterious Ellen, and if after all she had also had her way! Ah, I had fallen easily!
"Sir Sorrowful," she said, "take me back." She extended a little hand and a round arm, whose beauty I could fully catch. The long mousquetaires of later days were then not known, but her hands stood perfectly the trying test of white kids that ended short at the wrist.
Reluctantly I moved away with her from the merry throng upon the pavilion floor. At the edge of the better lighted circle she paused for a moment, standing straight and drawing a full, deep breath. If that were coquetry it was perfect. I swear that now I caught the full outline of a red, red heart upon her corsage!
"Mademoiselle," I said, as I left her, "you are Ellen, and you have a heart! At half past ten I shall come again. Some day I shall take away your mask and your heart."
"Oh, thank thee!" she mocked again.
At half past ten I had kept my word, and I stood once more at the Row of Mystery. The chairs were vacant, for the blue coats had wrought havoc there! A little apart sat a blonde beauty of petite figure, who talked in a deep contralto voice, astonishing for one so slight, with a young lieutenant who leaned close to her. I selected her for Tudie Devlin of Kentucky. She whom I fancied to be the "Evans girl from up North," was just promenading away with a young man in evening dress. A brunette whom I imagined to be Sadie Galloway of the Ninth was leaning on the back of a chair and conversing with a man whom I could not see, hidden in the shade of a tent fold. I looked behind me and saw a row of disgruntled gentlemen, nervously pacing up and down. At least there were others disappointed!
I searched the dancing floor and presently wished I had not done so. I saw her once more—dancing with a tall, slender man in uniform. At least he offered no disguise to me. In my heart I resented seeing him wear the blue of our government. And certainly it gave me some pang to which I was not entitled, which I did not stop to analyze, some feeling of wretchedness, to see this girl dancing with none less than Gordon Orme, minister of the Gospel, captain of the English Army, and what other inconsistent things I knew not!
"Buck up, Jack," I heard a voice at my side. "Did she run away from you?"
I feigned ignorance to Kitty. "They are all alike," said I, indifferently. "All dressed alike—"
"And I doubt not all acted alike."
"I saw but one," I admitted, "the one with a red heart on her corsage."
Kitty laughed a merry peal. "There were twelve red hearts," she said. "All there, and all offered to any who might take them. Silly, silly! Now, I wonder if indeed you did meet Ellen? Come, I'll introduce you to a hundred more, the nicest girls you ever saw."
"Then it was Ellen?"
"How should I know? I did not see you. I was too busy flirting with my husband—for after awhile I found that it was Matt, of course! It seems some sort of fate that I never see a handsome man who doesn't turn out to be Matt."
"I must have one more dance," I said.
"Then select some other partner. It is too late to find Ellen now, or to get a word with her if we did. The last I saw of her she was simply persecuted by Larry Belknap of the Ninth Dragoons—all the Army knows that he's awfully gone over Ellen."
"But we'll find her somewhere—"
"No, Jack, you'd better banish Ellen, and all the rest. Take my advice and run over home and go to bed. You forget you've the match on for to-morrow; and I must say, not wanting to disturb you in the least, I believe you're going to need all your nerve. There's Scotch on the sideboard, but don't drink champagne."
The scene had lost interest to me. The lights had paled, the music was less sweet.
Presently I strolled over to Number 16 and got Johnson to show me my little room. But I did very little at the business of sleeping; and when at last I slept I saw a long row of figures in alternate black and white; and of these one wore a red rose and a gold comb with a jewel in it, and her hair was very fragrant. I did not see Grace Sheraton in my dreams. Clearly I reasoned it out to myself as I lay awake, that if I had seen Ellen once, then indeed it were best for me I should never see Ellen again!
THE SUPREME COURT
If remorse, mental or physical, affected any of the dwellers at Jefferson Barracks on the morning following the officers' ball, at least neither was in evidence. By noon all traces of the late festivities had been removed from the parade ground, and the routine of the Post went on with the usual mechanical precision. The Army had entertained, it now labored. In a few hours it would again be ready to be entertained; the next little event of interest being the pigeon match between Orme and myself, which swift rumor seemed to have magnified into an importance not wholly welcome to myself.
We had a late breakfast at Number 16, and my friend Stevenson, who was to handle me in the match, saw to it that I had a hard tubbing before breakfast and a good run afterward, and later a hearty luncheon with no heavy wines. I was surprised at these business-like proceedings, which were all new to me, and I reflected with no satisfaction that my hot-headedness in accepting Orme's challenge might result in no glory to myself, and worse than that, let in my friends for loss; for Stevenson informed me that in spite of the fact that I had never shot in a race, a number of wagers were backing me against the Englishman. I reasoned, however, that these responsibilities should not be considered by one who needed perfect command of himself. Moreover, although I had never shot at trapped birds, I reasoned that a bird in the air was a flying bird after all, whether from trap or tree. Then, again, I was offended at Orme's air of superiority. Lastly, though it might be the fault of the Cowles' blood to accept any sort of challenge, it was not our way to regret that so soon as the day following.
The grounds for the match had been arranged at the usual place, near to the edge of the military reservation, and here, a half hour before the time set, there began to gather practically all of the young officers about the Post, all the enlisted men who could get leave, with cooks, strikers, laundresses, and other scattered personnel of the barracks. There came as well many civilians from the city, and I was surprised to see a line of carriages, with many ladies, drawn up back of the score. Evidently our little matter was to be made a semi-fashionable affair, and used as another expedient to while away ennui-ridden Army time.
My opponent, accompanied by Major Williams, arrived at about the same time that our party reached the grounds. Orme shook hands with me, and declared that he was feeling well, although Williams laughingly announced that he had not been able to make his man go to bed for more than an hour that morning, or to keep him from eating and drinking everything he could lay his hands upon. Yet now his eye was bright, his skin firm, his step light and easy. That the man had a superb constitution was evident, and I knew that my work was cut out for me, for Orme, whatever his profession, was an old one at the game of speedy going. As a man I disliked and now suspected him. As an opponent at any game one was obliged to take account of him.
"What boundary do we use, gentlemen?" Orme asked, as he looked out over the field. This question showed his acquaintance, but none the less his confidence and his courtesy as well, for in closely made matches all details are carefully weighed before the issue is joined. "I am more used to the Monaco bounds of eighteen yards," he added, "but whatever is your custom here will please me. I only want to have a notion of your sport."
"Our races here have usually been shot at fifty yards bounds," said Stevenson.
"As you like," said Orme, "if that pleases Mr. Cowles."
"Perfectly," said I, who indeed knew little about the matter.
Orme stepped over to the coops where the birds were kept—splendid, iridescent creatures, with long tails, clean, gamy heads and all the colors of the rainbow on their breasts. "By Jove!" he said, "they're rippers for looks, and they should fly a bit, I'm thinking. I have never seen them before, much less shot a race at them."
"Still your advantage," said I, laughing, "for I never shot a race at any sort in my life."
"And yet you match against me? My dear fellow, I hardly like—"
"The match is made, Captain Orme, and I am sure Mr. Cowles would not ask for any readjustment," commented Stevenson stiffly.
"Don't understand me to wish to urge anything," said Orme. "I only wish it so we shall all have a chance at revenge. Is there any one who wishes to back me, perhaps, or to back Mr. Cowles? Sometimes in England we shoot at a guinea a bird or five, or ten." Stevenson shook his head. "Too gaited for me at this time of the month," he said; "but I'll lay you a hundred dollars on the issue."
"Five if you like, on the Virginian, sir," said young Belknap of the Ninth to Orme.
"Done, and done, gentlemen. Let it be dollars and not guineas if you like. Would any one else like to lay a little something? You see, I'm a stranger here, but I wish to do what will make it interesting for any of you who care to wager something."
A few more wagers were laid, and the civilian element began to plunge a bit on Orme, word having passed that he was an old hand at the game, whereas I was but a novice. Orme took some of these wagers carelessly.
"Now as to our referee, Captain," said Stevenson. "You are, as you say, something of a stranger among us, and we wish your acquaintance were greater, so that you might name some one who would suit you."
"I'm indifferent," said Orme politely. "Any one Mr. Cowles may name will please me."
His conduct was handsome throughout, and his sporting attitude made him many friends among us. I suspect some Army money went on him, quietly, although little betting was now done in our presence.
"I see Judge Reeves, of the Supreme Court of the State, over there in a carriage," suggested Major Williams. "I've very much a notion to go and ask him to act as our referee."
"God bless my soul!" said Orme, "this is an extraordinary country! What—a judge of the Supreme Court?"
Williams laughed. "You don't know this country, Captain, and you don't know Judge Reeves. He's a trifle old, but game as a fighting cock, and not to mention a few duels in his time, he knows more even about guns and dogs to-day than he does about law. He'll not be offended if I ask him, and here goes."
He edged off through the crowd, and we saw him engaged in earnest conversation with the judge. To our surprise and amusement we observed the judge climb hastily down out of his carriage and take Major Williams' arm.
Judge Reeves was a tall, thin man, whose long hair and beard were silvery white, yet his stature was erect and vigorous. It was always said of him that he was the most dignified man in the State of Missouri, and that he carried this formality into every detail of his daily life. The story ran that each night, when he and his aged consort retired, they stood, each with candle in hand, on either side of the great bed which all their married life they had occupied in harmony. She, formally bowing to him across the bed, said "Good-night, Judge Reeves"; whereat he, bowing with yet greater formality, replied, "Good-night, Mrs. Reeves." Each then blew out the candle, and so retired! I cannot vouch as to the truth of this story, or of the further report that they carried out their ceremony when seating themselves at table, each meal of the day; but I will say that the appearance of this gentleman would have given such stories likelihood.
We uncovered as the judge approached us, and he shook hands with us in the most solemn way, his own wide black hat in his hand. "A—a—hem, gentlemen," he said, "a somewhat unusual situation for one on the bench—most unusual, I may say. But the Court can see no harm in it, since no law of the land is violated. Neither does the Court hold it beneath the dignity of its office to witness this little trial of skill between gentlemen. Further speaking, the Court does not here pass upon questions of law, but sits rather as jury in matters of ocular evidence, with the simple duty of determining whether certain flying objects fall upon this or the other side of that certain line marked out as the boundaries. Gentlemen, I am, a—hem, yours with great pleasure." If there was a twinkle in his eye it was a very solemn one. I venture to say he would have lost no votes at the next election were he up for office.
"Is the case ready for argument?" presently asked the judge, benignly. Williams and Stevenson both replied "All ready."
"I suggest that the gentlemen place their ammunition and loading tools upon the head of the cask at my right," said the judge. "I presume it to be understood that each may employ such charge as he prefers, and that each shall load his own piece?" The seconds assented to this. Of course, in those days only muzzle loaders were used, although we had cut-felt wads and all the improvements in gunnery known at that time. My weapon was supplied me by Captain Stevenson—a good Manton, somewhat battered up from much use, but of excellent even pattern. Orme shot a Pope-made gun of London, with the customary straight hand and slight drop of the English makes. I think he had brought this with him on his travels.
"Shall the firing be with the single barrel, or with both barrels?" inquired our referee. In those days many American matches were shot from plunge traps, and with the single barrel.
"I'm more used to the use of both barrels," suggested Orme, "but I do not insist."
"It is the same to me," I said. So finally we decided that the rise should be at twenty-eight yards, the use of both barrels allowed, and the boundary at fifty yards—such rules as came to be later more generally accepted in this country.
"Gentlemen, I suggest that you agree each bird to be gathered fairly by the hand, each of you to select a gatherer. Each gentleman may remunerate his gatherer, but the said remuneration shall in each case remain the same. Is that satisfactory?" We agreed, and each tossed a silver dollar to a grinning darky boy.
"Now, then, gentlemen, the Court is informed that this match is to be for the sum of twenty-five hundred dollars, wagered by Captain Orme, against a certain black stallion horse, the same not introduced in evidence, but stated by Mr. Cowles to be of the value of twenty-five hundred dollars in the open market. As the match is stated to be on even terms, the said John Cowles guarantees this certain horse to be of such value, or agrees to make good any deficit in that value. Is that understood, gentlemen?"
"I did not ask any guarantee," said Orme. "I know the horse, and he is worth more than twice that sum. You are using me very handsomely, gentlemen."
"Judge Reeves is right," said I. "The match is to be even." We bowed to each other.
The judge felt in his pockets. "Ahem, gentlemen," he resumed. "The Court being, as it were, broke, will some one be so good as to lend the Court a silver coin? Thank you," to Williams, "and now, gentlemen, will you toss for the order of precedence?"
We threw the coin, and I lost the toss. Orme sent me to the score first, with the purpose, as I knew, of studying his man.
I loaded at the open bowls, and adjusted the caps as I stepped to the score. I was perhaps a bit too tense and eager, although my health and youth had never allowed me to be a victim of what is known as nervousness. Our birds were to be flown by hand from behind a screen, and my first bird started off a trifle low, but fast, and I knew I was not on with the first barrel, the hang of Stevenson's gun being not quite the same as my own. I killed it with the second, but it struggled over the tape.
"Lost bird!" called out Judge Reeves sharply and distinctly; and it was evident that now he would be as decisive as he had hitherto been deliberate.
Under the etiquette of the game no comment was made on my mishap, and my second, Stevenson, did not make the mistake of commiserating me. No one spoke a word as Orme stepped to the score. He killed his bird as clean as though he had done nothing else all his life, and indeed, I think he was half turned about from the score before the bird was down. "Dead bird!" called the referee, with jaw closing like a steel trap.
Stevenson whispered to me this time. "Get full on with your first," he said. "They're lead-packers—old ones, every one, and a picked lot."
I was a trifle angry with myself by this time, but it only left me well keyed. My bird fell dead inside of Orme's. A murmur of applause ran down the line. "Silence in the court," thundered Judge Reeves.
We shot along for ten birds, and Orme was straight, to my nine killed. Stevenson whispered to me once more. "Take it easy, and don't be worried about it. It's a long road to a hundred. Don't think about your next bird, and don't worry whether he kills his or not. Just you kill 'em one at a time and kill each one dead. You mustn't think of anything on earth but that one bird before you."
This was excellent advice in the game, and I nodded to him. Whatever the cause, I was by this time perfectly calm. I was now accustomed to my gun, and had confidence in it. I knew I could shoot to the top of my skill, and if I were beaten it would be through no fault of my own nerves and muscles, but through the luck of the birds or the greater skill of the other man.
Orme went on as though he could kill a hundred straight. His time was perfect, and his style at the trap beautiful. He shot carelessly, but with absolute confidence, and more than half the time he did not use his second barrel.
"Old Virginia never tires," whispered Stevenson. "He'll come back to you before long, never fear."
But Orme made it twenty straight before he came back. Then he caught a strong right-quarterer, which escaped altogether, apparently very lightly hit. No one spoke a word of sympathy or exultation, but I caught the glint of Stevenson's eye. Orme seemed not in the least disturbed.
We were now tied, but luck ran against us both for a time, since out of the next five I missed three and Orme two, and the odds again were against me. It stood the same at thirty, and at thirty-five. At forty the fortune of war once more favored me, for although Orme shot like a machine, with a grace and beauty of delivery I have never seen surpassed, he lost one bird stone dead over the line, carried out by a slant of the rising wind, which blew from left to right across the field. Five birds farther on, yet another struggled over for him, and at sixty-five I had him back of me two birds. The interest all along the line was now intense. Stevenson later told me that they had never seen such shooting as we were doing. For myself, it did not seem that I could miss. I doubt not that eventually I must have won, for fate does not so favor two men at the same hour.
We went on slowly, as such a match must, occasionally pausing to cool our barrels, and taking full time with the loading. Following my second's instructions perfectly, I looked neither to the right nor to the left, not even watching Orme. I heard the confusion of low talk back of us, and knew that a large crowd had assembled, but I did not look toward the row of carriages, nor pay attention to the new arrivals which constantly came in. We shot on steadily, and presently I lost a bird, which came in sharply to the left.
The heap of dead birds, some of them still fluttering in their last gasps, now grew larger at the side of the referee, and the negro boys were perhaps less careful to wring the necks of the birds as they gathered them. Occasionally a bird was tossed in such a way as to leave a fluttering wing. Wild pigeons decoy readily to any such sign, and I noticed that several birds, rising in such position that they headed toward the score, were incomers, and very fast. My seventieth bird was such, and it came straight and swift as an arrow, swooping down and curving about with the great speed of these birds when fairly on the wing. I covered it, lost sight of it, then suddenly realized that I must fire quickly if I was to reach it before it crossed the score. It was so close when I fired that the charge cut away the quills of a wing. It fell, just inside the line, with its head up, and my gatherer pounced upon it like a cat. The decision of the referee was prompt, but even so, it was almost lost in the sudden stir and murmur which arose behind us.
Some one came pushing through the crowd, evidently having sprung down from one of the carriages. I turned to see a young girl, clad in white lawn, a thin silver-gray veil drawn tight under her chin, who now pushed forward through the men, and ran up to the black boy who stood with the bird in his hand, hanging by one wing. She caught it from him, and held it against her breast, where its blood drabbled her gown and hands. I remember I saw one drop of blood at its beak, and remember how glad I was that the bird was in effect dead, so that a trying scene would soon be ended.
"Stop this at once!" cried the girl, raising an imperative hand. "Aren't you ashamed, all of you? Look, look at this!" She held out the dying bird in her hand. "Judge Reeves," she cried, "what are you doing there?"
Our decisive referee grew suddenly abashed. "Ah—ah, my dear young lady—my very dear young lady," he began.
"Captain Stevenson," exclaimed the girl, whirling suddenly on my second, "stop this at once! I'm ashamed of you."
"Now, now, my dear Miss Ellen," began Stevenson, "can't you be a good fellow and run back home? We're off the reservation, and really—this, you see, is a judge of the Supreme Court! We're doing nothing unlawful." He motioned toward Judge Reeves, who looked suddenly uncomfortable.
Major Williams added his counsel. "It is a little sport between Captain Orme and Mr. Cowles, Miss Ellen."
"Sport, great sport, isn't it?" cried the girl, holding out her drabbled hands. "Look there"—she pointed toward the pile of dead birds—"hundreds of these killed, for money, for sport. It isn't sport. You had all these birds once, you owned them."
And there she hit a large truth, with a woman's guess, although none of us had paused to consider it so before.
"The law, Miss Ellen," began Judge Reeves, clearing his throat, "allows the reducing to possession of animals feroe naturoe, that is to say, of wild nature, and ancient custom sanctions it."
"They were already reduced" she flashed. "The sport was in getting them the first time, not in butchering them afterward."
Stevenson and Williams rubbed their chins and looked at each other. As for me, I was looking at the girl; for it seemed to me that never in my life had I seen one so beautiful.
Her hair, reddish brown in the sunlight, was massed up by the binding veil, which she pushed back now from her face. Her eyes, wide and dark, were as sad as they were angry. Tears streamed from them down her cheek, which she did not dry. Fearless, eager, she had, without thought, intruded where the average woman would not have ventured, and she stood now courageously intent only upon having the way of what she felt was right and justice. There came to me as I looked at her a curious sense that I and all my friends were very insignificant creatures; and it was so, I think, in sooth, she held us.
"Captain Orme," said I to my opponent, "you observe the actual Supreme Court of America!" He bowed to me, with a questioning raising of his eyebrows, as though he did not like to go on under the circumstances.
"I am unfortunate to lead by a bird," said I, tentatively. For some reason the sport had lost its zest to me.
"And I being the loser as it stands," replied Orme, "do not see how I can beg off." Yet I thought him as little eager to go on as I myself.
"Miss Ellen," said Judge Reeves, removing the hat from his white hair, "these gentlemen desire to be sportsmen as among themselves, but of course always gentlemen as regards the wish of ladies. Certain financial considerations are involved, so that both feel a delicacy in regard to making any motion looking to the altering of the original conditions of this contract. Under these circumstances, then, appeal is taken from this lower Court"—and he bowed very low—"to what my young friend very justly calls the Supreme Court of the United States. Miss Ellen, it is for you to say whether we shall resume or discontinue."
The girl bowed to Judge Reeves, and then swept a sudden hand toward Stevenson and Williams. "Go home, all of you!" she said.
And so, in sooth, much shamefaced, we did go home, Judge of the Supreme Court, officers of the Army, and all, vaguely feeling we had been caught doing some ignoble thing. For my part, although I hope mawkishness no more marks me than another, and although I made neither then nor at any time a resolution to discontinue sports of the field, I have never since then shot in a pigeon match, nor cared to see others do so, for it has never again seemed to me as actual sport. I think the intuitive dictum of the Army girl was right.
"Now wasn't that like Ellen!" exclaimed Kitty, when finally we found ourselves at her carriage—"just like that girl. Just wasn't it like that girl! To fly in the face of the Supreme Court of the State, and all the laws of sport as well! Jack, I was keeping count," she held out her ivory tablets. "You'd have beaten him sure, and I wanted to see you do it. You were one ahead, and would have made it better in the next twenty-five. Oh, won't I talk to that girl when I see her!"
"So that was Ellen!" I said to Kitty.
"The very same. Now you've seen her. What you think I don't know, but what she thinks of you is pretty evident."
"You were right, Mrs. Kitty," said I. "She's desperately good looking. But that isn't the girl I danced with last night. In the name of Providence, let me get away from this country, for I know not what may happen to me! No man is safe in this neighborhood of beauties."
"Let's all go home and get a bite to eat," said Stevenson, with much common sense. "You've got glory enough just the way it stands."
So that was Ellen! And it moreover was none less than Ellen Meriwether, daughter of my father's friend and business associate, whom I had traveled thus far to see, and whom, as I now determined, I must meet at the very first possible opportunity. Perhaps, then, it might very naturally come about that—but I dismissed this very rational supposition as swiftly as I was able.
THE MORNING AFTER
Events had somewhat hurried me in the two days since my arrival at Jefferson Barracks, but on the morning following the awkward ending of my match with Orme I had both opportunity and occasion to take stock of myself and of my plans. The mails brought me two letters, posted at Wallingford soon after my departure; one from Grace Sheraton and one from my mother. The first one was—what shall I say? Better perhaps that I should say nothing, save that it was like Grace Sheraton herself, formal, correct and cold. It was the first written word I had ever received from my fiancee, and I had expected—I do not know what. At least I had thought to be warmed, comforted, consoled in these times of my adversity. It seemed to my judgment, perhaps warped by sudden misfortune, that possibly my fiancee regretted her hasty promise, rued an engagement to one whose affairs had suddenly taken an attitude of so little promise. I was a poor man now, and worse than poor, because lately I had been rich, as things went in my surroundings. In this letter, I say, I had expected—I do not know what. But certainly I had not expected to see sitting on the page written in my fiancee's hand, the face of another woman. I hated myself for it.
The second letter was from my mother, and it left me still more disconcerted and sad. "Jack," it said, "I grieve unspeakably. I am sad beyond all imaginings of sadness. I need thee. Come back the first day thee can to thy mother."
There was indeed need for me at home. Yet here was I with my errand not yet well begun; for Captain Stevenson told me this morning that the Post Adjutant had received word from Colonel Meriwether saying that he would be gone for some days or weeks on the upper frontier. Rumor passed about that a new man, Sherman, was possibly to come on to assume charge of Jefferson, a man reported to be a martinet fit to stamp out any demonstration in a locality where secession sentiment was waxing strong. Meriwether, a Virginian, and hence suspected of Southern sympathy, was like many other Army officers at the time, shifted to points where his influence would be less felt, President Buchanan to the contrary notwithstanding. The sum of all which was that if I wished to meet Colonel Meriwether and lay before him my own personal request, I would be obliged to seek for him far to the West, in all likelihood at Fort Leavenworth, if not at the lower settlements around the old town of Independence. Therefore I wrote at once both to my fiancee and to my mother that it would be impossible for me to return at the time, nor at any positive future time then determinable. I bade a hasty good-by to my host and hostess, and before noon was off for the city. That night I took passage on the River Belle, a boat bound up the Missouri.
Thus, somewhat against my will, I found myself a part of that motley throng of keen-faced, fearless American life then pushing out over the frontiers. About me were men bound for Oregon, for California, for the Plains, and not a few whose purpose I took to be partisanship in the border fighting between slavery and free soil. It was in the West, and on the new soils, that the question of slavery was really to be debated and settled finally.
The intenseness, the eagerness, the compelling confidence of all this west-bound population did not fail to make the utmost impression upon my own heart, hitherto limited by the horizon of our Virginia hills. I say that I had entered upon this journey against my will. Our churning wheels had hardly reached the turbid flood of the Missouri before the spell of the frontier had caught me. In spite of sadness, trouble, doubt, I would now only with reluctance have resigned my advance into that country which offered to all men, young and old, a zest of deeds bold enough to banish sadness, doubt and grief.
THE WRECK ON THE RIVER
I made friends with many of these strange travelers, and was attracted especially by one, a reticent man of perhaps sixty odd years, in Western garb, full of beard and with long hair reaching to his shoulders. He had the face of an old Teuton war chief I had once seen depicted in a canvas showing a raid in some European forest in years long before a Christian civilization was known—a face fierce and eager, aquiline in nose, blue of eye; a figure stalwart, muscular, whose every movement spoke courage and self-confidence. Auberry was his name, and as I talked with him he told me of days passed with my heroes—Fremont, Carson, Ashley, Bill Williams, Jim Bridger, even the negro ruffian Beckwourth—all men of the border of whose deeds I had read. Auberry had trapped from the St. Mary's to the sources of the Red, and his tales, told in simple and matter-of-fact terms, set my very blood atingle. He was bound, as he informed me, for Laramie; always provided that the Sioux, now grown exceedingly restless over the many wagon-trains pushing up the Platte to all the swiftly-opening West, had not by this time swooped down and closed all the trails entirely. I wished nothing then so much as that occasion might permit me to join him in a journey across the Plains.
Among all these west-bound travelers the savage and the half-civilized seemed to me to preponderate; this not to say that they were so much coarse and crude as they were fierce, absorbed, self-centered. Each man depended upon himself and needed to do so. The crew on the decks were relics from keel-boat days, surly and ugly of temper. The captain was an ex-pilot of the lower river, taciturn and surly of disposition. Our pilot had been drunk for a week at the levee of St. Louis and I misdoubt that all snags and sandbars looked alike to him.
Among the skin-clad trappers, hunters and long-haired plainsmen, I saw but one woman, and she certainly was fit to bear them company. I should say that she was at least sixty years of age, and nearly six feet in height, thin, angular, wrinkled and sinewy. She wore a sunbonnet of enormous projection, dipped snuff vigorously each few moments, and never allowed from her hands the long squirrel rifle which made a part of her equipage. She was accompanied by her son, a tall, thin, ague-smitten youth of perhaps seventeen years and of a height about as great as her own. Of the two the mother was evidently the controlling spirit, and in her case all motherly love seemed to have been replaced by a vast contempt for the inefficiency and general lack of male qualities in her offspring. When I first saw them she was driving her son before her to a spot where an opening offered near the bow of the boat, in full sight of all the passengers, of whose attention she was quite oblivious.
"Git up, there, Andy Jackson!" she said. "Stan' up!"
The boy, his long legs braiding under him, and his peaked face still more pale, did as he was bid. He had no sooner taken his position than to my surprise I saw his mother cover him with the long barrel of a dragoon revolver.
"Pull your gun, you low-down coward," she commanded, in tones that might have been heard half the length of the boat. Reluctantly the boy complied, his own revolver trembling in his unready hand.
"Now, whut'd you do if a man was to kivver you like I'm a-doin' now?" demanded his mother.
"G-g-g-Gawd, Maw, I dunno! I think I'd j-j-j-jump off in the river," confessed the boy.
"Shore you would, and good luck if you'd git plumb drownded, you white-livered son of misery. Whatever in Gawd A'mighty's world you was borned for certainly is more'n I can tell—and I your Maw at that, that orto know if anybody could."
"Madam," I interrupted, astonished at this discourse, "what do you mean by such talk to your son—for I presume he is your son. Why do you abuse him in this way?" I was sorry for the shivering wretch whom she had made the object of her wrath.
"Shut up, and mind yore own business," answered the virago, swiftly turning the barrel of her weapon upon me. "Whut business is this here of yores?"
"None, madam," I bowed, "but I was only curious."
"You keep your own cur'osity to yourself ef you'r goin' to travel in these parts. That's a mighty good thing for you to learn."
"Very true, madam," said I, gently disengaging the revolver barrel from the line of my waist, "but won't you tell me why you do these things with your son?"
"It's none of your damned business," she answered, "but I don't mind tellin' you. I'm tryin' to make a man out'n him."
"Ah, and this is part of the drill?"
"Part of it. You, Andrew Jackson, stick yore pistol up agin your head the way I tol' you. Now snap it, damn you! Keep on a-snappin'! Quit that jumpin', I tell you! Snap, it till you git through bein' scared of it. Do it now, or by Gawd, I'll chase you over the side of the boat and feed you to the catfish, you low-down imertation of a he-thing. Mister," she turned to me again, "will you please tell me how come me to be the mother of a thing like this—me, a woman of ole Missoury; and me a cousin of ole Simon Kenton of Kentucky beside?"
"My good woman," said I, somewhat amused by her methods of action and speech, "do you mind telling me what is your name?"
"Name's Mandy McGovern; and I come from Pike," she answered, almost before the words were out of my mouth. "I've been merried three times and my first two husbands died a-fightin, like gentlemen, in diffikilties with friends. Then along come this Danny Calkins, that taken up some land nigh to me in the bottoms—low-downest coward of a, man that ever disgraced the sile of yearth—and then I merried him."
"Is he dead, too, my dear woman?" I asked.
"Don't you 'dear woman' me—I ain't free to merry agin yit," said she. "Naw, he ain't dead, and I ain't deevorced either. I just done left him. Why, every man in Pike has whupped Danny Calkins one time or other. When a man couldn't git no reputation any other way, he'd come erlong and whupped my husband. I got right tired of it."
"I should think you might."
"Yes, and me the wife of two real men befo' then. If ever a woman had hard luck the same is me," she went on. "I had eight chillen by my two husbands that was real men, and every one of them died, or got killed like a man, or went West like a man—exceptin' this thing here, the son of that there Danny Calkins. Why, he's afraid to go coon huntin' at night for fear the cats'll get him. He don't like to melk a keow for fear she'll kick him. He's afraid to court a gal. He kaint shoot, he kaint chop, he kaint do nothin'. I'm takin' him out West to begin over again where the plowin's easier; and whiles we go along, I'm givin' him a 'casional dose of immanuel trainin', to see if I can't make him part way intoe a man. I dunno!" Mrs. McGovern dipped snuff vigorously.
Thereafter she looked at me carefully. "Say, mister," said she, "how tall are you?"
"About six feet, I think."
"Hum! That's just about how tall my first husband was. You look some like him in the face, too. Say, he was the fightin'est man in Pike. How come him to get killed was a diffikilty with his brother-in-law, a Dutchman that kept a saloon and couldn't talk English. Jim, he went in there to get a bite to eat and asked this Dutchman what he could set up. Paul—that was the Dutchman's name—he says, 'Well, we got dawg—mallard dawg, and red head dawg, and canvas back dawg—what's the kind of dawg you like, Chim?'
"My husband thought he was pokin' fun at him, talkin' about eatin' dawg—not knowin' the Dutchman was tryin' to say 'duck,' and couldn't. 'I might have a piece of duck,' said Jim, 'bit I ain't eatin' no dawg.'
"'I said dawg,' says Paul, still a-tryin' to say 'duck.'
"'I know you did,' says Jim, and then they clinched. Jim He broke his knife off, and the Dutchman soaked him with a beer mallet. 'But Mandy,' says Jim to me, jest before he shet his eyes, 'I die content. That there fellow was the sweetest cuttin' man I ever did cut in all my life—he was jest like a ripe pumpkin.' Say, there was a man for you, was Jim—you look some like him." She dipped snuff again vigorously.
"You compliment me very much, Mrs. McGovern," I said.
"Say," she responded, "I got two thousand head o' hawgs runnin' around in the timber down there in Pike."
At the moment I did not see the veiled tenderness of this speech, but thought of nothing better than to tell her that I was going no further up the river than Fort Leavenworth.
"Um-hum!" she said. "Say, mister, mebbe that's yore wife back there in the kebbin in the middle of the boat?"
"No, indeed. In fact I did not know there was any other lady on the boat besides yourself. I am not much interested in young ladies, as it happens."
"You lie," said Mrs. McGovern promptly, "there ain't nothin' in the whole world you are ez much interested in as young wimmin. I'm a merried woman, and I know the signs. If I had a deevorce I might be a leetle jealous o' that gal in there. She's the best lookin' gal I ever did see in all my time. If I was merried to you I dunno but I'd be a leetle bit jealous o' you. Say, I may be a widder almost any day now. Somebody'll shore kill Danny Calkins 'fore long."
"And, according to you, I may be a married man almost any day," I replied, smiling.
"But you ain't merried yit."
"No, not yet," I answered.
"Well, if you git a chanct you take a look at that gal back there in the kebbin."
Opportunity did not offer, however, to accept Mrs. McGovern's kindly counsel, and, occupied with my own somewhat unhappy reflections, I resigned myself to the monotony of the voyage up the Missouri River. We plowed along steadily, although laboriously, all night, all the next day and the next night, passing through regions rich in forest growth, marked here and there by the many clearings of the advancing settlers. We were by this time far above the junction of the Missouri River with the Mississippi—a point traceable by a long line of discolored water stained with the erosion of the mountains and plains far up the Missouri. As the boat advanced, hour after hour, finally approaching the prairie country beyond the Missouri forests, I found little in the surroundings to occupy my mind; and so far as my communings with myself were concerned, they offered little satisfaction. A sort of shuddering self-reproach overcame me. I wondered whether or not I was less coarse, less a thing polygamous than these crowding Mormons hurrying out to their sodden temples in the West, because now (since I have volunteered in these pages to tell the truth regarding one man's heart), I must admit that in the hours of dusk I found myself dreaming not of my fiancee back in old Virginia, but of other women seen more recently. As to the girl of the masked ball, I admitted that she was becoming a fading memory; but this young girl who had thrust through the crowd and broken up our proceedings the other day—the girl with the white lawn gown and the silver gray veil and the tear-stained eyes—in some way, as I was angrily obliged to admit, her face seemed annoyingly to thrust itself again into my consciousness. I sat near a deck lamp. Grace Sheraton's letter was in my pocket. I did not draw it out to read it and re-read it. I contented myself with watching the masked shadows on the shores. I contented myself with dreams, dreams which I stigmatized as unwarranted and wrong.
We were running that night in the dark, before the rising of the moon, a thing which cautious steamboat men would not have ventured, although our pilot was confident that no harm could come to him. Against assurance such as this the dangerous Missouri with its bars and snags purposed a present revenge. Our whistle awakened the echoes along the shores as we plowed on up the yellow flood, hour after hour. Then, some time toward midnight, while most of the passengers were attempting some sort of rest, wrapped in their blankets along the deck, there came a slight shock, a grating slide, and a rasping crash of wood. With a forward churning of her paddles which sent water high along the rail, the River Belle shuddered and lay still, her engines throbbing and groaning.
In an instant every one on the boat was on his feet and running to the side. I joined the rush to the bows, and leaning over, saw that we were hard aground at the lower end of a sand bar. Imbedded in this bar was a long white snag, a tree trunk whose naked arms, thrusting far down stream, had literally impaled us. The upper woodwork of the boat was pierced quite through; and for all that one could tell at the moment, the hull below the line was in all likelihood similarly crushed. We hung and gently swung, apparently at the mercy of the tawny flood of old Missouri.
THE FACE IN THE FIRELIGHT
Sudden disaster usually brings sudden calm, the pause before resolution or resignation. For the first instant after the shock of the boat upon the impaling snag I stood irresolute; the next, I was busy with plans for escape. Running down the companionway, I found myself among a crowd of excited deck hands, most of whom, with many of the passengers, were pushing toward the starboard rail, whence could be seen the gloom of the forest along shore. The gangway door on the opposite side of the boat was open, and as I looked out I could see the long white arms of the giant snag reaching alongside. Without much plan or premeditation I sprang out, and making good my hold upon the nearest limb as I plunged, found myself, to my surprise, standing in not more than four feet of water, the foot of the bar evidently running down well under the boat.
Just as I turned to call to others I saw the tall figure of my plainsman, Auberry, appear at the doorway, and he also, with scarcely a moment's deliberation, took a flying leap and joined me on the snag. "It's better here than there," he said, "if she sinks or busts, and they're allus likely to do both."
As we pulled ourselves up into the fork of the long naked branch we heard a voice, and saw the face of a woman leaning over the rail of the upper deck. I recognized my whilom friend, Mandy McGovern. "Whut you all doin' down there?" she called. "Wait a minute; I'm comin', too." A moment later she appeared at the opening of the lower deck and craned out her long neck. I then saw at her side the figure of a young woman, her hair fallen from its coils, her feet bare, her body wrapped apparently only in some light silken dressing to be thrown above her nightwear. She, too, looked out into the darkness, but shrank back.
"Here, you," called out Mandy McGovern, "git hold of the end of this rope."
She tossed to me the end of the gang-plank rope, by which the sliding stage was drawn out and in at the boat landings. I caught this and passed it over a projection on the snag.
"Now, haul it out," commanded she; and as we pulled, she pushed, so that presently indeed we found that the end reached the edge of the limb on which we sat. Without any concern, Mrs. McGovern stepped out on the swaying bridge, sunbonnet hanging down her back, her long rifle under one arm, while by the other hand she dragged her tall son, Andrew Jackson, who was blubbering in terror.
This bridge, however, proved insecure, for as Mandy gave Andrew Jackson a final yank at its farther end, the latter stumbled, and in his struggles to lay hold upon the snag, pushed the end of the planks off their support. His mother's sinewy arm thrust him into safety, and she herself clambered up, very wet and very voluble in her imprecations on his clumsiness.
"Thar, now, look what ye did, ye low-down coward," she said. "Like to 'a' drownded both of us, and left the gal back there on the boat!"
The gang plank, confined by the rope, swung in the current alongside the snag, but it seemed useless to undertake to restore it to its position. The girl cowered against the side of the deck opening, undecided. "Wait," I called out to her; and slipping down into the water again, I waded as close as I could to the door, the water then catching me close to the shoulders.
"Jump!" I said to her, holding out my arms.
"I can't—I'm afraid," she said, in a voice hardly above a whisper.
"Do as I tell you!" I roared, in no gentle tones, I fear. "Jump at once!" She stooped, and sprang, and as I caught her weight with my arms under hers, she was for the moment almost immersed; but I staggered backwards and managed to hold my footing till Auberry's arms reached us from the snag, up which we clambered, the girl dripping wet and catching her breath in terror.
"That's right," said Mandy McGovern, calmly, "now here we be, all of us. Now, you men, git hold of this here rope an' haul up them boards, an' make a seat for us."
Auberry and I found it difficult to execute this order, for the current of old Missouri, thrusting against so large an object, was incredibly strong; but at last, little by little edging the heavy staging up over the limb of the snag, we got its end upon another fork and so made a ticklish support, half in and half out of the water.
"That's better," said Mandy, climbing upon it. "Now come here, you pore child. You're powerful cold." She gathered the girl between her knees as she sat. "Here, you man, give me your coat," she said to me; and I complied, wishing it were not so wet.
None on the boat seemed to have any notion of what was going on upon our side of the vessel. We heard many shouts and orders, much trampling of feet, but for the most part on the opposite part of the boat. Then at once we heard the engines reverse, and were nearly swept from our insecure hold upon the snag by the surges kicked up under the wheel. The current caught the long underbody of the boat as she swung. We heard something rip and splinter and grate; and then the boat, backing free from the snag, gradually slipped down from the bar and swept into the current under steam again.
Not so lucky ourselves, for this wrenching free of the boat had torn loose the long imbedded roots of the giant snag, and the plowing current getting under the vast flat back of matted roots, now slowly forced it, grinding and shuddering, down from the toe of the bar. With a sullen roll it settled down into new lines as it reached the deeper water. Then the hiss of the water among the branches ceased. Rolling and swaying, we were going with the current, fully afloat on the yellow flood of the Missouri!
I held my breath for a moment, fearing lest the snag might roll over entirely; but no concern seemed to reach the mind of our friend Mrs. McGovern. "It's all right," said she, calmly. "No use gittin' skeered till the time comes. Boat's left us, so I reckon we'd better be gittin' somewhere for ourselves. You, Andrew Jackson, dem yer fool soul, if you don't quit snivelin' I'll throw you off into the worter."
Looking across the stream I could see the lights of the River Belle swing gradually into a longer line, and presently heard the clanging of her bells as she came to a full stop, apparently tied up along shore. From that direction the current seemed to come toward us with a long slant, so that as we dropped down stream, we also edged away.
We had traveled perhaps three quarters of a mile, when I noticed the dim loom of trees on our side of the stream, and saw that we were approaching a long point which ran out below us. This should have been the deep side of the river, but no one can account for the vagaries of the Missouri. When we were within a hundred yards or so of the point, we felt a long shuddering scrape under us, and after a series of slips and jerks, our old snag came to anchor again, its roots having once more laid hold upon a bar. The sand-wash seemed to have been deflected by the projecting mass of a heap of driftwood which I now saw opposite to us, its long white arms reaching out toward those of our floating craft. Once more the hissing of the water began among the buried limbs, and once more the snag rolled ominously, and then lay still, its giant, naked trunk, white and half submerged, reaching up stream fifty feet above us. We were apparently as far from safety as ever, although almost within touch of shore.
It occurred to me that as I had been able to touch bottom on the other bar, I might do so here. I crawled back along the trunk of the snag to a place as near the roots as I could reach, and letting myself down gently, found that I could keep my footing on the sand.
"Look out there! boy," cried Auberry to me. "This river's dangerous. If it takes you down, swim for the shore. Don't try to get back here." We could see that the set of the current below ran close inshore, although doubtless the water there was very deep.
Little by little I edged up the stream, and found presently that the water shoaled toward the heap of driftwood. It dropped off, I know not how deep, between the edge of the bar and the piled drift; but standing no more than waist deep; I could reach the outer limbs of the drift and saw that they would support my weight. After that I waded back to the snag carefully, and once more ordered the young woman to come to me.
She came back along the naked and slippery trunk of the snag, pulling herself along by her hands, her bare feet and limbs deep in the water alongside. I could hear the sob of her intaken breath, and saw that she trembled in fright.
"Come," I said, as she finally reached the mass of the roots. And more dead than alive, it seemed to me, she fell once more into my arms. I felt her grasp tighten about my neck, and her firm body crowd against me as we both sank down for an instant. Then I caught my feet and straightened, and was really the steadier for the added weight, as any one knows who has waded in fast water. Little by little I edged up on the bar, quite conscious of her very gracious weight, but sure we should thus reach safety.
"Put me down," she said at length, as she saw the water shoaling. It was hip deep to me, but waist deep to her; and I felt her shudder as she caught its chill. Her little hand gripped tight to mine.
By this time the others had also descended from the snag. I saw old Auberry plunging methodically along, at his side Mrs. McGovern, clasping the hand of her son. "Come on here, you boy," she said. "What ye skeered of? Tall as you air, you could wade the whole Missouri without your hair gettin' wet. Come along!"
"Get up, Auberry," I said to him as he approached, and motioned to the long, overhanging branches from the driftwood. He swung up, breaking off the more insecure boughs, and was of the belief that we could get across in that way. As he reached down, I swung the young woman up to him, and she clambered on as best she could. Thus, I scarce know how, we all managed to reach the solid drift, and so presently found ourselves ashore, on a narrow, sandy beach, hedged on the back by a heavy growth of willows.
"Now then, you men," ordered Mandy McGovern, "get some wood out and start a fire, right away. This here girl is shaking the teeth plumb out'n her head."
Auberry and I had dragged some wood from the edge of the drift and pulled it into a heap near by, before we realized that neither of us had matches.
"Humph!" snorted our leader, feeling in her pockets. She drew forth two flasks, each stoppered with a bit of corncob. The one held sulphur matches, thus kept quite dry, and this she passed to me. The other she handed to the young woman.
"Here," said she, "take a drink of that. It'll do you good."
I heard the girl gasp and choke as she obeyed this injunction; and then Mandy applied the bottle gurglingly to her own lips.
"I've got a gallon of that back there on the boat," said Auberry ruefully.
"Heap of good it'll do you there," remarked Mandy. "Looks to me like you all never did travel much. Fer me, I always go heeled. Wherever I gits throwed, there my rifle, and my matches, and my licker gits throwed too! Now I'll show you how to, light a fire."
Presently we had a roaring blaze started, which added much to the comfort of all, for the chill of night was over the river, despite the fact that this was in the springtime. Mandy seated herself comfortably upon a log, and producing a corncob pipe and a quantity of natural leaf tobacco, proceeded to enjoy herself in her own fashion. "This here's all right," she remarked. "We might be a heap worse off'n we air."
I could not help pitying the young woman who crouched near her at the fireside, still shivering; she seemed so young and helpless and so out of place in such surroundings. As presently the heat of the flame made her more comfortable, she began to tuck back the tumbled locks of her hair, which I could see was thick and dark. The firelight showed in silhouette the outlines of her face. It seemed to me I had never seen one more beautiful. I remembered the round firmness of her body in my arms, the clasp of her hands about my neck, her hair blown across my cheek, and I reflected that since fortune had elected me to be a rescuer, it was not ill that so fair an object had been there for the rescuing.
Perhaps she felt my gaze, for presently she turned and said to me, in as pleasant a speaking voice as I had ever heard, "Indeed, it might be worse. I thank you so much. It was very brave of you."
"Listen at that!" grunted Mandy McGovern. "What'd them men have to do with it? Where'd you all be now if it wasn't for me?"
"You'd be much better off," I ventured, "if I hadn't done any rescuing at all, and if we'd all stayed over there on the boat." I pointed to the lights of the River Belle, lying on the opposite shore, something like a mile above us.
"We're all right now," said old Auberry after a time. "If we can't get across to the boat, it's only four or five miles up to the settlements on this side, opposite the old Independence landing."
"I couldn't walk," said the girl. She shyly looked down at the edge of her thin wrapper, and I saw the outline of an uncovered toe.
"Here, ma'am," said Auberry, unknotting from his neck a heavy bandana. "This is the best I can do. You and the woman see if you can tie up your feet somehow."
The girl hesitated, laughed, and took the kerchief. She and Mandy bent apart, and I heard the ripping of the handkerchief torn across. The girl turned back to the fire and put out a little foot for us to see, muffled now in the red folds of the kerchief. Her thin garments by this time were becoming dry, and her spirits now became more gay. She fell into a ready comradeship with us.
As she stood at the fire, innocent of its defining light, I saw that she was a beautiful creature, apparently about twenty years of age. Given proper surroundings, I fancied, here was a girl who might make trouble for a man. Eyes like hers, I imagined, had before this set some man's heart astir; and one so fair as she never waited long in this world for admirers.
She stooped and spread out her hands before the flames. I could see that her hands were small and well formed, could see the firelight shine pink at the inner edges of her fingers. On one finger, as I could not avoid noticing, was a curious ring of plain gold. The setting, also of gold, was deeply cut into the figure of a rose. I recalled that I had never seen a ring just similar. Indeed, it seemed to me, as I stole a furtive glance at her now and then, I had never seen a girl just similar.
We had waited perhaps not over an hour at our fireside, undecided what to do, when Auberry raised a hand. "Listen," he said. "There's a boat coming"; and presently we all heard the splash of oars. Our fire had been seen by one of the boats of the River Belle, out picking up such stragglers as could be found.
"Hello, there!" called a rough voice to us, as the boat grated at our beach. Auberry and I walked over and found that it was the mate of the boat, with a pair of oarsmen in a narrow river skiff.
"How many's there of you?" asked the mate—"Five?—I can't take you all."
"All right," said Auberry, "this gentleman and I will walk up to the town on this side. You take the women and the boy. We'll send down for our things in the morning, if you don't come up."
So our little bivouac on the beach came to an end. A moment later the passengers were embarked, and Auberry and I, standing at the bow, were about to push off the boat for them.
"A moment, sir," exclaimed our friend of the fireside, rising and stepping toward me as I stood alongside the boat. "You are forgetting your coat."
She would have taken it from her shoulders, but I forbade it. She hesitated, and finally said, "I thank you so much"; holding out her hand.
I took it. It was a small hand, with round fingers, firm of clasp. I hate a hard-handed woman, or one with mushy fingers, but this, as it seemed to me, was a hand excellently good to clasp—warm now, and no longer trembling in the terrors of the night.
"I do not know your name, sir," she said, "but I should like my father to thank you some day."
"All ready!" cried the mate.
"My name is Cowles," I began, "and sometime, perhaps—"
"All aboard!" cried the mate; and so the oars gave way.
So I did not get the name of the girl I had seen there in the firelight. What did remain—and that not wholly to my pleasure, so distinct it seemed—was the picture of her high-bred profile, shown in chiaroscuro at the fireside, the line of her chin and neck, the tumbled masses of her hair. These were things I did not care to remember; and I hated myself as a soft-hearted fool, seeing that I did so.
"Son," said old Auberry to me, after a time, as we trudged along up the bank, stumbling over roots and braided grasses, "that was a almighty fine lookin' gal we brung along with us there."
"I didn't notice," said I.
"No," said Auberry, solemnly, "I noticed you didn't take no notice; so you can just take my judgment on it, which I allow is safe. Are you a married man?"
"Not yet," I said.
"You might do a heap worse than that gal," said Auberry.
"I suppose you're married yourself," I suggested.
"Some," said Auberry, chuckling in the dark. "In fact, a good deal, I reckon. My present woman's a Shoshone—we're livin' up Horse Creek, below Laramie. Them Shoshones make about the best dressers of 'em all."
"I don't quite understand—"
"I meant hides. They can make the best buckskin of any tribe I know." He walked on ahead in the dark for some time, before he added irrelevantly, "Well, after all, in some ways, women is women, my son, and men is men; that bein' the way this world is made just at these here present times. As I was sayin', that's a powerful nice lookin' gal."
I shuddered in my soul. I glanced up at the heavens, studded thick with stars. It seemed to me that I saw gazing down directly at me one cold, bright, reproving star, staring straight into my soul, and accusing me of being nothing more than a savage, nothing better than a man.
At our little village on the following morning, Auberry and I learned that the River Bell would lie up indefinitely for repairs, and that at least one, perhaps several days would elapse before she resumed her journey up stream. This suited neither of us, so we sent a negro down with a skiff, and had him bring up our rifles, Auberry's bedding, my portmanteaus, etc., it being our intention to take the stage up to Leavenworth. By noon our plans were changed again, for a young Army officer came down from that Post with the information that Colonel Meriwether was not there. He had been ordered out to the Posts up the Platte River, had been gone for three weeks; and no one could tell what time he would return. The Indians were reported very bad along the Platte. Possibly Colonel Meriwether might be back at Leavenworth within the week, possibly not for a month or more!
This was desperate news for me, for I knew that I ought to be starting home at that very time. Still, since I had come hither as a last resort, it would do no good for me to go back unsuccessful. Should I wait here, or at Leavenworth; or should I go on still farther west? Auberry decided that for me.
"I tell you what we can do," he said. "We can outfit here, and take the Cut-off trail to the Platte, across the Kaw and the Big and Little Blue—that'll bring us in far enough east to catch the Colonel if he's comin' down the valley. You'd just as well be travelin' as loafin', and that's like enough the quickest way to find him."
The counsel seemed good. I sat down and wrote two more letters home, once more stating that I was not starting east, but going still farther west. This done, I tried to persuade myself to feel no further uneasiness, and to content my mind with the sense of duty done.
Auberry, as it chanced, fell in with a party bound for Denver, five men who had two wagons, a heavy Conestoga freight wagon, or prairie schooner, and a lighter vehicle without a cover. We arranged with these men, and their cook as to our share in the mess box, and so threw in our dunnage with theirs, Auberry and I purchasing us a good horse apiece. By noon of the next day we were on our way westward, Auberry himself now much content.
"The settlements for them that likes 'em," said he. "For me, there's nothing like the time when I start west, with a horse under me, and run au large, as the French traders say. You'll get a chance now to see the Plains, my son."
At first we saw rather the prairies than the Plains proper. We were following a plainly marked trail, which wound in and out among low rolling hills; and for two days we remained in touch with the scattered huts of the squalid, half-civilized Indians and squaw men who still hung around the upper reservations. Bleached bones of the buffalo we saw here and there, but there was no game. The buffalo had long years since been driven far to the westward. We took some fine fish in the clear waters of the forks of the Blue, which with some difficulty we were able to ford. Gradually shaking down into better organization, we fared on and on day after day, until the grass grew shorter and the hills flatter. At last we approached the valley of the Platte.
We were coming now indeed into the great Plains, of which I had heard all my youth. A new atmosphere seemed to invest the world. The talk of my companions was of things new and wild and strange to me. All my old life seemed to be slipping back of me, into a far oblivion. A feeling of rest, of confidence and of uplift came to me. It was difficult to be sad. The days were calm, the nights were full of peace. Nature seemed to be loftily above all notice of small frettings. Many things became more clear to me, as I rode and reflected. In some way, I know not how, it seemed to me that I was growing older.
We had been out more than two weeks when finally we reached the great valley along which lay the western highway of the old Oregon trail, now worn deep and dusty by countless wheels. Our progress had not been very rapid, and we had lost time on two occasions in hunting up strayed animals. But, here at last, I saw the road of the old fur traders, of Ashley and Sublette and Bridger, of Carson and Fremont, later of Kearney, Sibley, Marcy, one knew not how many Army men, who had for years been fighting back the tribes and making ready this country for white occupation. As I looked at this wild, wide region, treeless, fruitless, it seemed to me that none could want it. The next thought was the impression that, no matter how many might covet it, it was exhaustless, and would last forever. This land, this West, seemed to all then unbelievably large and limitless.
We pushed up the main trail of the Platte but a short distance that night, keeping out an eye for grazing ground for our horses. Auberry knew the country perfectly. "About five or six miles above here," he said, "there's a stage station, if the company's still running through here now. Used to be two or three fellers and some horses stayed there."
We looked forward to meeting human faces with some pleasure; but an hour or so later, as we rode on, I saw Auberry pull up his horse, with a strange tightening of his lips. "Boys," said he, "there's where it was!" His pointing finger showed nothing more than a low line of ruins, bits of broken fencing, a heap of half-charred timbers.
"They've been here," said Auberry, grimly. "Who'd have thought the Sioux would be this far east?"
He circled his horse out across the valley, riding with his head bent down. "Four days ago at least," he said, "and a bunch of fifty or more of them. Come on, men."
We rode up to the station, guessing what we would see. The buildings lay waste and white in ashes. The front of the dugout was torn down, the wood of its doors and windows burned. The door of the larger dugout, where the horses had been stabled, was also torn away. Five dead horses lay near by, a part of the stage stock kept there. We kept our eyes as long as we could from what we knew must next be seen—the bodies of the agent and his two stablemen, mutilated and half consumed, under the burned-out timbers. I say the bodies, for the lower limbs of all three had been dismembered and cast in a heap near where the bodies of the horses lay. We were on the scene of one of the brutal massacres of the savage Indian tribes. It seemed strange these things should be in a spot so silent and peaceful, under a sky so blue and gentle.
"Sioux!" said Auberry, looking down as he leaned on his long rifle. "Not a wheel has crossed their trail, and I reckon the trail's blocked both east and west. But the boys put up a fight." He led us here and there and showed dried blotches on the soil, half buried now in the shifting sand; showed us the bodies of a half-dozen ponies, killed a couple of hundred yards from the door of the dugout.
"They must have shot in at the front till they killed the boys," he added. "And they was so mad they stabbed the horses for revenge, the way they do sometimes. Yes, the boys paid their way when they went, I reckon."
We stood now in a silent group, and what was best to be done none at first could tell. Two of our party were for turning back down the valley, but Auberry said he could see no advantage in that.
"Which way they've gone above here no one can tell," he said. "They're less likely to come here now, so it seems to me the best thing we can do is to lay up here and wait for some teams comin' west. There'll be news of some kind along one way or the other, before so very long."
So now we, the living, took up our places almost upon the bodies of the dead, after giving these the best interment possible. We hobbled and side-lined our horses, and kept our guards both day and night; and so we lay here for three days.
The third day passed until the sun sank toward the sand dunes, and cast a long path of light across the rippling shallows among the sand bars of the Platte; but still we saw no signs of newcomers. Evening was approaching when we heard the sound of a distant shot, and turning saw our horse-guard, who had been stationed at the top of a bluff near by, start down the slope, running toward the camp. As he approached he pointed, and we looked down the valley toward the east.
Surely enough, we saw a faint cloud of dust coming toward us, whether of vehicles or horsemen we could not tell. Auberry thought that it was perhaps some west-bound emigrant or freight wagon, or perhaps a stage with belated mails.
"Stay here, boys," he said, "and I'll ride down and see." He galloped off, half a mile or so, and then we saw him pause, throw up his hand, and ride forward at full speed. By that time the travelers were topping a slight rise in the floor of the valley, and we could see that they were horsemen, perhaps thirty or forty in all. Following them came the dust-whitened top of an Army ambulance, and several camp wagons, to the best of our figuring at that distance. We hesitated no longer and quickly mounting our horses rode full speed toward them. Auberry met us, coming back.
"Troop of dragoons, bound for Laramie," he said. "No Indians back of them, but orders are out for all of the wagons and stages to hole up till further orders. This party's going through. I told them to camp down there," he said to me aside, "because they've got women with 'em, and I didn't want them to see what's happened up here. We'll move our camp down to theirs to-night, and like enough go on with them to-morrow."
By the time I was ready to approach these new arrivals, they had their plans for encampment under way with the celerity of old campaigners. Their horses were hobbled, their cook-fires of buffalo "chips" were lit, their wagons backed into a rude stockade. Guards were moving out with the horses to the grazing ground. They were a seasoned lot of Harney's frontier fighters, grimed and grizzled, their hats, boots and clothing gray with dust, but their weapons bright. Their leader was a young lieutenant, who approached me when I rode up. It seemed to me I remembered his blue eyes and his light mustaches, curled upward at the points.
"Lieutenant Belknap!" I exclaimed. "Do you remember meeting me down at Jefferson?"
"Why, Mr. Cowles!" he exclaimed. "How on earth did you get here? Of course I remember you."
"Yes, but how did you get here yourself—you were not on my boat?"
"I was ordered up the day after you left Jefferson Barracks," he said, "and took the Asia. We got into St. Joe the same day with the River Belle, and heard about your accident down river. I suppose you came out on the old Cut-off trail."
"Yes; and of course you took the main trail west from Leavenworth."
He nodded. "Orders to take this detachment out to Laramie," he said, "and meet Colonel Meriwether there."
"He'll not be back?" I exclaimed in consternation. "I was hoping to meet him coming east."
"No," said Belknap, "you'll have to go on with us if you wish to see him. I'm afraid the Sioux are bad on beyond. Horrible thing your man tells me about up there," he motioned toward the ruined station. "I'm taking his advice and going into camp here, for I imagine it isn't a nice thing for a woman to see."
He turned toward the ambulance, and I glanced that way. There stood near it a tall, angular figure, head enshrouded in an enormous sunbonnet; a personality which it seemed to me I recognized.
"Why, that's my friend, Mandy McGovern," said I. "I met her on the boat. Came out from Leavenworth with you, I suppose?"
"That isn't the one," said Belknap. "No, I don't fancy that sister McGovern would cut up much worse than the rest of us over that matter up there; but the other one—"
At that moment, descending at the rear of the ambulance, I saw the other one.
HER INFINITE VARIETY
It was a young woman who left the step of the ambulance and stood for a moment shading her eyes with her hand and looking out over the shimmering expanse of the broad river. All at once the entire landscape was changed. It was not the desert, but civilization which swept about us. A transfiguration had been wrought by one figure, fair to look upon.
I could see that this was no newcomer in the world of the out-of-doors, however. She was turned out in what one might have called workmanlike fashion, although neat and wholly feminine. Her skirt was short, of good gray cloth, and she wore a rather mannish coat over a blue woolen shirt or blouse. Her hands were covered with long gauntlets, and her hat was a soft gray felt, tied under the chin with a leather string, while a soft gray veil was knotted carelessly about her neck as kerchief. Her face for the time was turned from us, but I could see that her hair was dark and heavy, could see, in spite of its loose garb, that her figure was straight, round and slender. The swift versatility of my soul was upon the point of calling this as fine a figure of young womanhood as I had ever seen. Now, indeed, the gray desert had blossomed as a rose.
I was about to ask some questions of Belknap, when all at once I saw something which utterly changed my pleasant frame of mind. The tall figure of a man came from beyond the line of wagons—a man clad in well-fitting tweeds cut for riding. His gloves seemed neat, his boots equally neat, his general appearance immaculate as that of the young lady whom he approached. I imagine it was the same swift male jealousy which affected both Belknap and myself as we saw Gordon Orme!
"Yes, there is your friend, the Englishman," said Belknap rather bitterly.
"I meet him everywhere," I answered. "The thing is simply uncanny. What is he doing out here?"
"We are taking him out to Laramie with us. He has letters to Colonel Meriwether, it seems. Cowles, what do you know about that man?"
"Nothing," said I, "except that he purports to come from the English Army."
"I wish that he had stayed in the English Army, and not come bothering about ours. He's prowling about every military Post he can get into."
"With a special reference to Army officers born in the South?" I looked Belknap full in the eye.
"There's something in that," he replied. "I don't like the look of it. These are good times for every man to attend to his own business."
As Orme stood chatting with the young woman, both Belknap and I turned away. A moment later I ran across my former friend, Mandy McGovern. In her surprise she stopped chewing tobacco, when her eyes fell on me, but she quickly came to shake me by the hand.
"Well, I dee-clare to gracious!" she began, "if here ain't the man I met on the boat! How'd you git away out here ahead of us? Have you saw airy buffeler? I'm gettin' plumb wolfish fer something to shoot at. Where all you goin', anyhow? An' whut you doin' out here?"
What I was doing at that precise moment, as I must confess, was taking a half unconscious look once more toward the tail of the ambulance, where Orme and the young woman stood chatting. But it was at this time that Orme first saw or seemed to see me. He left the ambulance and came rapidly forward.
"By Jove!" he said, "here you are again! Am I your shadow, Mr. Cowles, or are you mine? It is really singular how we meet. I'm awfully glad to meet you, although I don't in the least see how you've managed to get here ahead of us."
Belknap by this time had turned away about his duties, and Orme and I spoke for a few minutes. I explained to him the changes of my plans which had been brought about by the accident to the River Belle. "Lieutenant Belknap tells me that you are going through to Laramie with him," I added. "As it chances, we have the same errand—it is my purpose also to call on Colonel Meriwether there, in case we do not meet him coming down."
"How extraordinary! Then we'll be fellow travelers for a time, and I hope have a little sport together. Fine young fellow, Belknap. And I must say that his men, although an uncommonly ragged looking lot and very far from smart as soldiers, have rather a workmanlike way about them, after all."
"Yes, I think they would fight," I remarked, coolly. "And from the look of things, they may have need to." I told him then of what he had discovered at the station house near by, and added the caution not to mention it about the camp. Orme's eyes merely brightened with interest. Anything like danger or adventure had appeal to him. I said to him that he seemed to me more soldier than preacher, but he only laughed and evaded.
"You'll eat at our mess to-night, of course" said he. "That's our fire just over there, and I'm thinking the cook is nearly ready. There comes Belknap now."
Thus, it may be seen, the confusion of these varied meetings had kept me from learning the name or identity of the late passenger of the ambulance. I presume both Orme and Belknap supposed that the young lady and I had met before we took our places on the ground at the edge of the blanket which served as a table. She was seated as I finally approached, and her face was turned aside as she spoke to the camp cook, with whom she seemed on the best of terms. "Hurry, Daniels," she called out. "I'm absolutely starved to death!"
There was something in her voice which sounded familiar to me, and I sought a glance at her face, which the next instant was hid by the rim of her hat as she looked down, removing her long gloves. At least I saw her hands—small hands, sun-browned now. On one finger was a plain gold ring, with a peculiar setting—the figure of a rose, carved deep into the gold!
"After all," thought I to myself, "there are some things which can not be duplicated. Among these, hair like this, a profile like this, a figure like this." I gazed in wonder, then in certainty.
No there was no escaping the conclusion. This was not another girl, but the same girl seen again. A moment's reflection showed how possible and indeed natural this might be. My chance companion in the river accident had simply gone on up the river a little farther and then started west precisely as Mandy McGovern had explained.
Belknap caught the slight restraint as the girl and I both raised our eyes. "Oh, I say, why—what in the world—Mr. Cowles, didn't you—that is, haven't you—"
"No," said I, "I haven't and didn't, I think. But I think also—"
The girl's face was a trifle flushed, but her eyes were merry. "Yes," said she, "I think Mr. Cowles and I have met once before." She slightly emphasized the word "once," as I noticed.
"But still I may remind you all, gentlemen," said I, "that I have not yet heard this lady's name, and am only guessing, of course, that it is Miss Meriwether, whom you are taking out to Laramie."
"Why, of course," said Belknap, and "of course," echoed everybody else. My fair vis-a-vis looked me now full in the face and smiled, so that a dimple in her right cheek was plainly visible.
"Yes," said she, "I'm going on out to join my father on the front. This is my second time across, though. Is it your first, Mr. Cowles?"
"My first; and I am very lucky. You know, I also am going out to meet your father, Miss Meriwether."
"How singular!" She put down her tin cup of coffee on the blanket.
"My father was an associate of Colonel Meriwether in some business matters back in Virginia—"
"Oh, I know—it's about the coal lands, that are going to make us all rich some day. Yes, I know about that; though I think your father rarely came over into Albemarle."
Under the circumstances I did not care to intrude my personal matters, so I did not mention the cause or explain the nature of my mission in the West. "I suppose that you rarely came into our county either, but went down the Shenandoah when you journeyed to Washington?" I said simply, "I myself have never met Colonel Meriwether."
All this sudden acquaintance and somewhat intimate relation between us two seemed to afford no real pleasure either to Belknap or Orme. For my part, with no clear reason in the world, it seemed to me that both Belknap and Orme were very detestable persons. Had the framing of this scene been left utterly to me, I should have had none present at the fireside save myself and Ellen Meriwether. All these wide gray plains, faintly tinged in the hollows with green, and all this sweeping sky of blue, and all this sparkling river, should have been just for ourselves and no one else.
But my opportunity came in due course, after all. As we rose from the ground at the conclusion of our meal, the girl dropped one of her gloves. I hastened to pick it up, walking with her a few paces afterward.