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- Tales of Trail and Town - 5/36 -
he knew not why--on a galloping horse in the dust of the prairie-- far beyond the seas! It was only when he saw her cheek flush and pale, when he saw her staring at him with helpless, frightened, but fascinated eyes,--the eyes of the fluttering bird under the spell of the rattlesnake,--that he drew his breath and turned bewildered away. "And do you know, dear," she said with naive simplicity to her sister that evening, "that although he was an American, and everybody says that they don't care at all for those poor Indians, he was so magnanimous in his indignation that I fancied he looked like one of Cooper's heroes himself rather than an Atherly. It was such a stupid thing for me to show him that tomb of Major Atherly, you know, who fought the Americans,--didn't he?--or was it later?-- but I quite forgot he was an American." And with this belief in her mind, and in the high expiation of a noble nature, she forbore her characteristic raillery, and followed him meekly, manacled in spirit like the allegorical figure, to the church porch, where they separated, to meet on the morrow. But that morrow never came.
For late in the afternoon a cable message reached him from California asking him to return to accept a nomination to Congress from his own district. It determined his resolution, which for a moment at the church porch had wavered under the bright eyes of Lady Elfrida. He telegraphed his acceptance, hurriedly took leave of his honestly lamenting kinsman, followed his dispatch to London, and in a few days was on the Atlantic.
How he was received in California, how he found his sister married to the blond lawyer, how he recovered his popularity and won his election, are details that do not belong to this chronicle of his quest. And that quest seems to have terminated forever with his appearance at Washington to take his seat as Congressman.
It was the night of a levee at the White House. The East Room was crowded with smartly dressed men and women of the capital, quaintly simple legislators from remote States in bygone fashions, officers in uniform, and the diplomatic circle blazing with orders. The invoker of this brilliant assembly stood in simple evening dress near the door,--unattended and hedged by no formality. He shook the hand of the new Congressman heartily, congratulated him by name, and turned smilingly to the next comer. Presently there was a slight stir at one of the opposite doors, the crowd fell back, and five figures stalked majestically into the centre of the room. They were the leading chiefs of an Indian reservation coming to pay their respects to their "Great Father," the President. Their costumes were a mingling of the picturesque with the grotesque; of tawdriness with magnificence; of artificial tinsel and glitter with the regal spoils of the chase; of childlike vanity with barbaric pride. Yet before these the glittering orders and ribbons of the diplomats became dull and meaningless, the uniforms of the officers mere servile livery. Their painted, immobile faces and plumed heads towered with grave dignity above the meaner crowd; their inscrutable eyes returned no response to the timid glances directed towards them. They stood by themselves, alone and impassive,--yet their presence filled the room with the sense of kings. The unostentatious, simple republican court suddenly seemed to have become royal. Even the interpreter who stood between their remote dignity and the nearer civilized world acquired the status of a court chamberlain.
When their "Great Father," apparently the less important personage, had smilingly received them, a political colleague approached Peter and took his arm. "Gray Eagle would like to speak with you. Come on! Here's your chance! You may be put on the Committee on Indian Relations, and pick up a few facts. Remember we want a firm policy; no more palaver about the 'Great Father' and no more blankets and guns! You know what we used to say out West, 'The only "Good Indian" is a dead one.' So wade in, and hear what the old plug hat has to say."
Peter permitted himself to be led to the group. Even at that moment he remembered the figure of the Indian on the tomb at Ashley Grange, and felt a slight flash of satisfaction over the superior height and bearing of Gray Eagle.
"How!" said Gray Eagle. "How!" said the other four chiefs. "How!" repeated Peter instinctively. At a gesture from Gray Eagle the interpreter said: "Let your friend stand back; Gray Eagle has nothing to say to him. He wishes to speak only with you."
Peter's friend reluctantly withdrew, but threw a cautioning glance towards him. "Ugh!" said Gray Eagle. "Ugh!" said the other chiefs. A few guttural words followed to the interpreter, who turned, and facing Peter with the monotonous impassiveness which he had caught from the chiefs, said: "He says he knew your father. He was a great chief,--with many horses and many squaws. He is dead."
"My father was an Englishman,--Philip Atherly!" said Peter, with an odd nervousness creeping over him.
The interpreter repeated the words to Grey Eagle, who, after a guttural "Ugh!" answered in his own tongue.
"He says," continued the interpreter with a slight shrug, yet relapsing into his former impassiveness, "that your father was a great chief, and your mother a pale face, or white woman. She was captured with an Englishman, but she became the wife of the chief while in captivity. She was only released before the birth of her children, but a year or two afterwards she brought them as infants to see their father,--the Great Chief,--and to get the mark of their tribe. He says you and your sister are each marked on the left arm."
Then Gray Eagle opened his mouth and uttered his first English sentence. "His father, big Injin, take common white squaw! Papoose no good,--too much white squaw mother, not enough big Injin father! Look! He big man, but no can bear pain! Ugh!"
The interpreter turned in time to catch Peter. He had fainted.
A hot afternoon on the plains. A dusty cavalcade of United States cavalry and commissary wagons, which from a distance preserved a certain military precision of movement, but on nearer view resolved itself into straggling troopers in twos and fours interspersed between the wagons, two noncommissioned officers and a guide riding ahead, who had already fallen into the cavalry slouch, but off to the right, smartly erect and cadet-like, the young lieutenant in command. A wide road that had the appearance of being at once well traveled and yet deserted, and that, although well defined under foot, still seemed to disappear and lose itself a hundred feet ahead in the monotonous level. A horizon that in that clear, dry, hazeless atmosphere never mocked you, yet never changed, but kept its eternal rim of mountains at the same height and distance from hour to hour and day to day. Dust--a parching alkaline powder that cracked the skin--everywhere, clinging to the hubs and spokes of the wheels, without being disturbed by movement, incrusting the cavalryman from his high boots to the crossed sabres of his cap; going off in small puffs like explosions under the plunging hoofs of the horses, but too heavy to rise and follow them. A reeking smell of horse sweat and boot leather that lingered in the road long after the train had passed. An external silence broken only by the cough of a jaded horse in the suffocating dust, or the cracking of harness leather. Within one of the wagons that seemed a miracle of military neatness and methodical stowage, a lazy conversation carried on by a grizzled driver and sunbrowned farrier.
"'Who be you?' sezee. 'I'm Philip Atherly, a member of Congress,' sez the long, dark-complected man, sezee, 'and I'm on a commission for looking into this yer Injin grievance,' sezee. 'You may be God Almighty,' sez Nebraska Bill, sezee, 'but you look a d--d sight more like a hoss-stealin' Apache, and we don't want any of your psalm-singing, big-talkin' peacemakers interferin' with our ways of treatin' pizen,--you hear me? I'm shoutin',' sezee. With that the dark-complected man's eyes began to glisten, and he sorter squirmed all over to get at Bill, and Bill outs with his battery.--Whoa, will ye; what's up with YOU now?" The latter remark was directed to the young spirited near horse he was driving, who was beginning to be strangely excited.
"What happened then?" said the farrier lazily.
"Well," continued the driver, having momentarily quieted his horse, "I reckoned it was about time for me to wheel into line, for fellers of the Bill stripe, out on the plains, would ez leave plug a man in citizen's clothes, even if he was the President himself, as they would drop on an Injin or a nigger. 'Look here, Bill,' sez I, 'I'm escortin' this stranger under gov'ment orders, and I'm responsible for him. I ain't allowed to waste gov'ment powder and shot on YOUR kind onless I've orders, but if you'll wait till I strip off this shell* I'll lam the stuffin' outer ye, afore the stranger.' With that Bill just danced with rage, but dassent fire, for HE knew, and I knew, that if he'd plugged me he'd been a dead frontiersman afore the next mornin'."
* Cavalry jacket.
"But you'd have had to give him up to the authorities, and a jury of his own kind would have set him free."
"Not much! If you hadn't just joined, you'd know that ain't the way o' 30th Cavalry," returned the driver. "The kernel would have issued his orders to bring in Bill dead or alive, and the 30th would have managed to bring him in DEAD! Then your jury might have sat on him! Tell you what, chaps of the Bill stripe don't care overmuch to tackle the yaller braid."*
* Characteristic trimming of cavalry jacket.
"But what's this yer Congressman interferin' for, anyway?"
"He's a rich Californian. Thinks he's got a 'call,' I reckon, to look arter Injins, just as them Abolitionists looked arter slaves. And get hated just as they was by the folks here,--and as WE are, too, for the matter of that."
"Well, I dunno," rejoined the farrier, "it don't seem nateral for white men to quarrel with each other about the way to treat an Injin, and that Injin lyin' in ambush to shoot 'em both. And ef gov'ment would only make up its mind how to treat 'em, instead of one day pretendin' to be their 'Great Father' and treatin' them like babies, and the next makin' treaties with 'em like as they wos forriners, and the next sendin' out a handful of us to lick ten thousand of them-- Wot's the use of ONE regiment--even two--agin a
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