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- Tales of Trail and Town - 6/36 -


nation--on their own ground?"

"A nation,--and on their own ground,--that's just whar you've hit it, Softy. That's the argument of that Congressman Atherly, as I've heard him talk with the kernel."

"And what did the kernel say?"

"The kernel reckoned it was his business to obey orders,--and so should you. So shut your head! If ye wanted to talk about gov'ment ye might say suthin' about its usin' us to convoy picnics and excursion parties around, who come out here to have a day's shootin', under some big-wig of a political boss or a railroad president, with a letter to the general. And WE'RE told off to look arter their precious skins, and keep the Injins off 'em,--and they shootin' or skeerin' off the Injins' nat'ral game, and our provender! Darn my skin ef there'll be much to scout for ef this goes on. And b'gosh!--of they aren't now ringin' in a lot of titled forriners to hunt 'big game,' as they call it,--Lord This- and-That and Count So-and-So,--all of 'em with letters to the general from the Washington cabinet to show 'hospitality,' or from millionaires who've bin hobnobbin' with 'em in the old country. And darn my skin ef some of 'em ain't bringin' their wives and sisters along too. There was a lord and lady passed through here under escort last week, and we're goin' to pick up some more of 'em at Fort Biggs tomorrow,--and I reckon some of us will be told off to act as ladies' maids or milliners. Nothin' short of a good Injin scare, I reckon, would send them and us about our reg'lar business. Whoa, then, will ye? At it again, are ye? What's gone of the d--d critter?"

Here the fractious near horse was again beginning to show signs of disturbance and active terror. His quivering nostrils were turned towards the wind, and he almost leaped the centre pole in his frantic effort to avoid it. The eyes of the two men were turned instinctively in that direction. Nothing was to be seen,--the illimitable plain and the sinking sun were all that met the eye. But the horse continued to struggle, and the wagon stopped. Then it was discovered that the horse of an adjacent trooper was also laboring under the same mysterious excitement, and at the same moment wagon No. 3 halted. The infection of some inexplicable terror was spreading among them. Then two non-commissioned officers came riding down the line at a sharp canter, and were joined quickly by the young lieutenant, who gave an order. The trumpeter instinctively raised his instrument to his lips, but was stopped by another order.

And then, as seen by a distant observer, a singular spectacle was unfolded. The straggling train suddenly seemed to resolve itself into a large widening circle of horsemen, revolving round and partly hiding the few heavy wagons that were being rapidly freed from their struggling teams. These, too, joined the circle, and were driven before the whirling troopers. Gradually the circle seemed to grow smaller under the "winding-up" of those evolutions, until the horseless wagons reappeared again, motionless, fronting the four points of the compass, thus making the radii of a smaller inner circle, into which the teams of the wagons as well as the troopers' horses were closely "wound up" and densely packed together in an immovable mass. As the circle became smaller the troopers leaped from their horses,--which, however, continued to blindly follow each other in the narrower circle,--and ran to the wagons, carbines in hand. In five minutes from the time of giving the order the straggling train was a fortified camp, the horses corralled in the centre, the dismounted troopers securely posted with their repeating carbines in the angles of the rude bastions formed by the deserted wagons, and ready for an attack. The stampede, if such it was, was stopped.

And yet no cause for it was to be seen! Nothing in earth or sky suggested a reason for this extraordinary panic, or the marvelous evolution that suppressed it. The guide, with three men in open order, rode out and radiated across the empty plain, returning as empty of result. In an hour the horses were sufficiently calmed and fed, the camp slowly unwound itself, the teams were set to and were led out of the circle, and as the rays of the setting sun began to expand fanlike across the plain the cavalcade moved on. But between them and the sinking sun, and visible through its last rays, was a faint line of haze parallel with their track. Yet even this, too, quickly faded away.

Had the guide, however, penetrated half a mile further to the west he would have come upon the cause of the panic, and a spectacle more marvelous than that he had just witnessed. For the illimitable plain with its monotonous prospect was far from being level; a hundred yards further on he would have slowly and imperceptibly descended into a depression nearly a mile in width. Here he not only would have completely lost sight of his own cavalcade, but have come upon another thrice its length. For here was a trailing line of jog-trotting dusky shapes, some crouching on dwarf ponies half their size, some trailing lances, lodge-poles, rifles, women and children after them, all moving with a monotonous rhythmic motion as marked as the military precision of the other cavalcade, and always on a parallel line with it. They had done so all day, keeping touch and distance by stealthy videttes that crept and crawled along the imperceptible slope towards the unconscious white men. It was, no doubt, the near proximity of one of those watchers that had touched the keen scent of the troopers' horses.

The moon came up; the two cavalcades, scarcely a mile apart, moved on in unison together. Then suddenly the dusky caravan seemed to arise, stretch itself out, and swept away like a morning mist towards the west. The bugles of Fort Biggs had just rung out.

. . . . . .

Peter Atherly was up early the next morning pacing the veranda of the commandant's house at Fort Biggs. It had been his intention to visit the new Indian Reservation that day, but he had just received a letter announcing an unexpected visit from his sister, who wished to join him. He had never told her the secret of their Indian paternity, as it had been revealed to him from the scornful lips of Gray Eagle a year ago; he knew her strangely excitable nature; besides, she was a wife now, and the secret would have to be shared with her husband. When he himself had recovered from the shock of the revelation, two things had impressed themselves upon his reserved and gloomy nature: a horror of his previous claim upon the Atherlys, and an infinite pity and sense of duty towards his own race. He had devoted himself and his increasing wealth to this one object; it seemed to him at times almost providential that his position as a legislator, which he had accepted as a whim or fancy, should have given him this singular opportunity.

Yet it was not an easy task or an enviable position. He was obliged to divorce himself from his political party as well as keep clear of the wild schemes of impractical enthusiasts, too practical "contractors," and the still more helpless bigotry of Christian civilizers, who would have regenerated the Indian with a text which he did not understand and they were unable to illustrate by example. He had expected the opposition of lawless frontiersmen and ignorant settlers--as roughly indicated in the conversation already recorded; indeed he had felt it difficult to argue his humane theories under the smoking roof of a raided settler's cabin, whose owner, however, had forgotten his own repeated provocations, or the trespass of which he was proud. But Atherly's unaffected and unobtrusive zeal, his fixity of purpose, his undoubted courage, his self-abnegation, and above all the gentle melancholy and half- philosophical wisdom of this new missionary, won him the respect and assistance of even the most callous or the most skeptical of officials. The Secretary of the Interior had given him carte blanche; the President trusted him, and it was said had granted him extraordinary powers. Oddly enough it was only his own Californian constituency, who had once laughed at what they deemed his early aristocratic pretensions, who now found fault with his democratic philanthropy. That a man who had been so well received in England-- the news of his visit to Ashley Grange had been duly recorded-- should sink so low as "to take up with the Injins" of his own country galled their republican pride. A few of his personal friends regretted that he had not brought back from England more conservative and fashionable graces, and had not improved his opportunities. Unfortunately there was no essentially English policy of trusting aborigines that they knew of.

In his gloomy self-scrutiny he had often wondered if he ought not to openly proclaim his kinship with the despised race, but he was always deterred by the thought of his sister and her husband, as well as by the persistent doubt whether his advocacy of Indian rights with his fellow countrymen would be as well served by such a course. And here again he was perplexed by a singular incident of his early missionary efforts which he had at first treated with cold surprise, but to which later reflection had given a new significance. After Gray Eagle's revelation he had made a pilgrimage to the Indian country to verify the statements regarding his dead father,--the Indian chief Silver Cloud. Despite the confusion of tribal dialects he was amazed to find that the Indian tongue came back to him almost as a forgotten boyish memory, so that he was soon able to do without an interpreter; but not until that functionary, who knew his secret, appeared one day as a more significant ambassador. "Gray Eagle says if you want truly to be a brother to his people you must take a wife among them. He loves you--take one of his!" Peter, through whose veins--albeit of mixed blood--ran that Puritan ice so often found throughout the Great West, was frigidly amazed. In vain did the interpreter assure him that the wife in question, Little Daybreak, was a wife only in name, a prudent reserve kept by Gray Eagle in the orphan daughter of a brother brave. But Peter was adamant. Whatever answer the interpreter returned to Gray Eagle he never knew. But to his alarm he presently found that the Indian maiden Little Daybreak had been aware of Gray Eagle's offer, and had with pathetic simplicity already considered herself Peter's spouse. During his stay at the encampment he found her sitting before his lodge every morning. A girl of sixteen in years, a child of six in intellect, she flashed her little white teeth upon him when he lifted his tent flap, content to receive his grave, melancholy bow, or patiently trotted at his side carrying things he did not want, which she had taken from the lodge. When he sat down to work, she remained seated at a distance, looking at him with glistening beady eyes like blackberries set in milk, and softly scratching the little bare brown ankle of one foot with the turned-in toes of the other, after an infantine fashion. Yet after he had left--a still single man, solely though his interpreter's diplomacy, as he always believed-- he was very worried as to the wisdom of his course. Why should he not in this way ally himself to his unfortunate race irrevocably? Perhaps there was an answer somewhere in his consciousness which he dared not voice to himself. Since his visit to the English Atherlys, he had put resolutely aside everything that related to that episode, which he now considered was an unhappy imposture. But there were times when a vision of Lady Elfrida, gazing at him with wondering, fascinated eyes, passed across his fancy; even the contact with his own race and his thoughts of their wrongs recalled to him the tomb of the soldier Atherly and the carven captive


Tales of Trail and Town - 6/36

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