WHEN the trumpets at Bisuka barracks sound retreat, the girls in the Meadows cottage, on the edge of the Reservation, begin to hurry with the supper things, and Mrs. Meadows, who has been young herself, says to her eldest daughter, “ You go now, Callie : the girls and I can finish.”Which means that Callie’s colors go up as the colors on the hill come down : for soon the tidy infantrymen and the troopers with their yellow stripes will be seen, in the first blush of the afterglow, tramping along the paths that thread the sagebrush common between the barracks and the town ; and Callie’s young man will be among them, and he will turn off at the bridge that crosses the açéquia, and make for the cottage gate by a path which he ought to know pretty well by this time.
Callie’s young man is Henniker, one of the trumpeters of K troop,-th cavalry ; the trumpeter, Callie would say, for though there are two of the infantry and two of the cavalry who stand forth at sunset, in front of the adjutant’s office, and blow as one man the brazen call that throbs against the hill, it is only Henniker that Callie hears. That trumpet blare, most masculine of all musical utterances, goes straight from his big blue-clad chest to the heart of his girl, across the clear lit evening ; but not to hers alone. There is only one Henniker, but there is more than one girl in the cottage on the common.
At this hour, nightly, a small dark head, not so high above the sage as Callie’s auburn one, pursues its dreaming way, in the wake of two cows and a halfgrown heifer, towards the hills where the town herd pastures. Punctually at the first call it starts out behind the cows from the home corral; by the second it has passed, very slowly, the foot-bridge, and is nearly to the corner post of the Reservation; but when “sound off” is heard, the slow-moving head stops still. The cheek turns. A listening eye is raised ; it is black, heavily lashed ; the tip of a silken eyebrow shows against the narrow temple. The cheek is round and young, of a smooth clear brown, richly under-tinted with rose. — a native wild flower of the Northwest. As the trumpets cease, and the gun fires, and the brief echo dies in the hill, the liquid eyes grow sad.
“ Sweet, sweet! too sweet to be so short and so strong! “ The dumb childish heart swells in the constriction of a new and keener sense of joy, an unspeakable new longing.
What that note of the deep-colored summer twilight means to her she hardly understands. It awakens no thought of expectation for herself, no definite desire. She knows that the trumpeter’s sunset call is his good-by to duty on the eve of joy ; it is the pæan of his love for Callie. Wonderful to he like Callie ; who after all is just like any other girl, — like herself, just as she was a year ago, before she had ever spoken to Henniker.
Henniker was not only a trumpeter, one of four who made music for the small two-company garrison ; he was an artist with a personality. The others blew according to tactics, and sometimes made mistakes; Henniker never made mistakes, except that he sometimes blew too well. Nobody with an ear listening nightly for taps could mistake when it was Henniker’s turn, as orderly trumpeter, to sound the calls. He had the temperament of the joyous art; and with it the vanity, the passion, the forgetfulness, the unconscious cruelty, the love of beauty, and the love of being loved that made him the flirt constitutional as well as the flirt military, — which not all soldiers are, but which all soldiers are accused of being. He flirted not only with his fine gait and figure, and bold roving glances from under his cap-peak with the gold sabres crossed above it; he flirted in a particular and personal as well as promiscuous manner, and was ever new to the dangers he incurred, not to mention those to which his willing victims exposed themselves. For up to this time in all his life Henniker had never yet pursued a girl. There had been no need, and as yet no inducement, for him to take the offensive. The girls all felt his irresponsible gift of pleasing, and forgot to be afraid. Not one of the class of girls he met but envied Callie Meadows, and showed it by pretending to wonder what he could see in her.
It was himself Henniker saw. so no wonder he was satisfied, until he should see himself in a more flattering mirror still. The very first night he met her, Callie had informed him, with the courage of her bright eyes, that she thought him magnificent fun ; and he had laughed in his heart, and said, “ Go ahead, my dear ! ” And ahead they went headlong, and were engaged within a week.
Mother Meadows did not like it much, but it was the youthful way, in pastoral frontier circles like their own ; and Callie would do as she pleased, —that was Callie’s way. Father Meadows said it was the women’s business; if Callie and her mother were satisfied, so was he.
But he made inquiries at the post, and learned that Henniker’s record was good in a military sense. He stood well with his officers, had no loose, unsoldierly habits, and never was drunk on duty. He did not save his pay ; but how much “ pay ” had Meadows ever saved when he was a single man ? And within two years, if he wanted it, the trumpeter was entitled to his discharge. So he prospered in this as in former love affairs that had stopped short of the conclusive step of marriage.
Meta, the little cow-girl, the youngest and fairest, though many shades the darkest of the Meadows household, was not of the Meadows blood. On her father’s side, her ancestry, doubtless, was uncertain : some said carelessly, “ Canada French.” Her mother was pure squaw of the Bannock breed. But Mother Meadows, whose warm Scoteh-Irish heart nourished a vein of romance together with a feudal love of family, upheld that Meta was no chance slip of the murky half-bloods, neither clean wild nor clean tame. Her father, she claimed to know, had been a man of education and of honor on the white side of his life, a well-born Scottish gentleman, exiled to the wilderness of the Northwest in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. And Meta’s mother had broken no law of her rudimentary conscience. She had not swerved in her own Avild allegiance, nor suffered desertion by her white chief. He had been killed in some obscure frontier fight, and his goods, including the woman and child, were the stake for which he had perished. But Father Josette, who knew all things and all people of those parts, and had baptized the infant by the sainted name of Margaret, had traced his lost plant of grace and conveyed it out of the forest shades into the sunshine of a Christian white woman’s home. Father Josette—so Mrs. Meadows maintained—had known that the babe would prove worthy of transplantation.
She made room for the little blackheaded stranger, with soft eyes like a mouse (by the blessing of God she had never lost a child, and the nest was full), in the midst of her own fat, fair-haired brood, and cherished her in her place, and gave her a daughter’s privilege.
In a wild, woodlandish way, Meta was a bit of an heiress in her own right. She had inherited through her mother a share in the yearly increase of a band of Bannock ponies down on the Salmon meadows ; and every season, after the grand round-up, the settlement was made, — always with distinct fairness, though it took some time, and a good deal of eating, drinking, and diplomacy, before the business could be accomplished.
“ What is a matter of a field worth forty shekels betwixt thee and me ? ” was the etiquette of the transaction, but the outcome was practically the same as in the days of patriarchal transfers of real estate.
Father Meadows would say that it cost him twice over what the maiden’s claim was worth to have her cousins the Bannocks, with their wives and children and horses, camped on his borders every summer; for Meta’s dark-skinned brethren never sent her the worth of her share in money, but came themselves with her ponies in the flesh, and spare ponies of their own, for sale in the town ; and on Father Meadows was the burden of keeping them all good natured, of satisfying their primitive ideas of hospitality, and of pasturing Meta’s ponies until they could finally be sold for her benefit. No account was kept, in this simple, generous household, of what was done for Meta, but strict account was kept of all that was Meta’s own.
The Bannock brethren were very proud of their fair kinswoman who dwelt in the tents of Jacob. They called her, amongst themselves, by the name they give to the mariposa lily, the closed bud of which is pure white as the whitest garden lily; but as each Psyche-wing petal opens it is mooned at the base with a dark purplish stain which marks the flower with startling beauty, yet, to some eyes, seems to mar it as well. With every new bud the immaculate promise is renewed, but the leopard cannot change his spots nor the wild hill lily her natal stain.
This year the sale of pony flesh amounted to nearly a hundred dollars, which Father Meadows put away for Meta’s future benefit,— all but one gold piece, which the mother showed her, telling her that it represented a new dress.
“ You need a new white one for your best, and I shall have it made long. You ’re filling out so, I don’t believe you ’ll grow much taller.”
Meta smiled sedately. In spite of the yearly object lesson her dark kinsfolk presented, she never classed herself among the hybrids. She accepted homage and tribute from the tribe, but in her consciousness, at this time, she was all white. This was due partly to Mother Meadows’s large-hearted and romantic theories of training, and partly to an accident of heredity. The woman who looks the squaw is the squaw, when it comes to the flowering time of her life. To Meta had succeeded the temperament of her mother expressed in the features of her father ; whether Canadian trapper or Scotch grandee, he had owned an admirable profile.
A great social and musical event took place that summer in the town, and Meta’s first long dress was finished in time to play its part, as such trifles will in the simple fates of girlhood. It was by far the prettiest dress she had ever put Over her head; the work of a professional, to begin with. Then its length persuaded one that she was taller than nature had made her. Its short waist suited her youthful bust and flat back and narrow shoulders. The sleeves were puffed and stood out like wings, and were gathered on a ribbon which tied in a bow just above the bend of her elbow. Her arms were round and soft as satin, and pinkish-pale inside, like the palms of her small hands. All her skin, though dark, was as clear as wine in a colored glass. The neck was cut down in a circle below her throat, which she shyly clasped with her hands, not being accustomed to feel it hare. And as naturally as a bird would open its beak for a worm, she exclaimed to Mother Meadows, “ Oh, how I wish I had some beads ! ” And before nighit she had strung herself a necklace of the gold - colored pompons with silver-gray stems that spangle the dry hills in June, —“ butter-balls ” the Western children call them, — and, in spite of the laughter and gibes of the other girls, she wore her sylvan ornament on the great gala night, and its amazing becomingness was its best defense.
So Meta’s first long dress went, in company with three other unenvious white dresses and Father Meadows’s best coat, to hear the “ Coonville Minstrels,” a company of amateur performers representing the best musical talent in the town, who would appear for one night only, for the benefit of the free circulating library fund.
Henniker was not in attendance on his girl as usual.
'■ What a pity,” the sisters said, “ that he should have to be on guard to-night! ” But Meta remembered, though she did not say so, that Henniker had been on guard only two nights before, so it could not be his turn again, and that could not explain his absence.
But Callie was as gay as ever, and did not seem put out even at her father’s bantering insinuations about some other possible girl who might he scoring in her place.
The sisters were enraptured over every number on the programme. The performers had endeavored to conceal their identity under burnt cork and names that were fictitious and humorous, but everybody was comparing guesses as to which was which, and who was who. The house was packed, and “society” was there. The feminine half of it did not wear its best frock to the show and its head uncovered, but what of that! A girl knows when she is looking her prettiest, and the young Meadowses were in no way concerned for the propriety of their own appearance. Father Meadows, looking along the row of smiling faces belonging to him, was as well satisfied as any man in the house. His eyes rested longer than usual on little Meta to-night. He saw for the first time that the child was a beauty ; not going to be, — she was one then and there. Her hair, which she was accustomed to wear in two tightly braided pigtails down her back, had been released and brushed out all its stately maiden length, “crisped like a war-steed’s encolure.” It fell below her waist, and made her face and throat look pale against its blackness. A spot of white electric light touched her chest where it rose and fell beneath the chain of golden blossom balls, — orange gold, the cavalry color. Slie looked like no other girl in the house, though nearly every girl in town was there.
Part I. of the programme was finished; a brief wait, — the curtain rose, and behold the colored gentlemen from Coonville had vanished. Only the interlocutor remained, scratching his white wool wig over a letter which he begged to read in apology for his predicament. His minstrelsy had decamped, and spoilt his show. They wrote to inform him of the obvious fact, and advised him, facetiously, to throw himself upon the indulgence of the house, hut “ by no means to refund the money.”
Poor little Meta believed that she was listening to the deplorable truth, and wondered how Father Meadows and the girls could laugh.
“ Oh, won’t there be any second part, after all?” she despaired; at which Father Meadows laughed still more, and pinched her cheek, and some persons in the row of chairs in front half turned and smiled.
“Goosey,"whispered Callie, “ don’t you see he’s only gassing ? This is part of the fun.” ,
“ Oh, is it ? ” sighed Meta, and she waited for the secret of the fun to develop.
“ Look at your programme,” Callie instructed her. “See, this is the Impressario’s Predicament The Wandering Minstrel comes next. He will be splendid, I can tell you.”
“ Mr. Piper Hide-and-Seek,” murmured Meta, studying her programme.
“ What a funny name ! ”
“ Oh, you child! ” Callie laughed aloud, but as suddenly hushed, for the sensation of the evening, to the Meadows party, had begun.
A very handsome man, in the gala dress of a stage peasant, of the Bavarian Highlands possibly, came forward with a short, military step, and bowed impressively. There was a burst of applause from the bluecoats in the gallery, and much whistling and stamping from the boys.
“ Who is it ? ” the lady in front whispered to her neighbor.
“ One of the soldiers from the post,” was the answer.
“ Really ! ”
But the lady’s accent of surprise conveyed nothing beside the speechless admiration of the Meadows family. Callie, who had been in the exciting secret all along, whispered violently with the other girls, but Meta had become quite cold and shivery. She could not have uttered a word.
Henniker made a little speech in an assumed accent which astonished his friends almost more than his theatrical dress and bearing. He said he was a stranger, piping his way through a foreign land, but he could “spik ze Engleesh a leetle.” Would the ladies and gentlemen permit him, in the embarrassing absence of better performers, to present them with a specimen of his poor skill upon a very simple instrument ? Behold !
He flung back his short cloak, and filled his chest, standing lightly on his feet, with his elbows raised.
No rattling trumpet blast from the artist’s lips to-night, but, still and small, sustained and clear, the pure reed note trilled forth. Willow whistles piping in springtime in the stillness of deep meadow lands before the grass is long, or in flickering wood paths before the full leaves darken the boughs, — such was the pastoral simplicity of the instrument with which Henniker beguiled his audience. Such was the quality of sound, but the ingenuity, caprice, delicacy, and precision of its management were quite his own. They procured him a wild encore.
Henniker had been nervous at the first time of playing ; it would have embarrassed him less to come before a strange house ; for there were the captain and the captain’s lady, and the lieutenants with their best girls; and forty men he knew were nudging and winking at one another ; and there were the bonny Meadowses, with their eyes upon him and their faces all aglow. But who was she, the little big-eyed dark one in their midst ? He took her in more coolly as he came before the house the second time ; and this time he knew her. but not as he ever had known her before.
Is it one of nature’s revenges that in the beauty of their women lurks the venom of the dark races which the white man has put beneath his feet ? The bruised serpent has it’s sting ; and we know how from Moab and Midian down the daughters of fhe heathen have been the unhappy instruments of proud Israel’s fall, and how the shaft of his punishment reaches him through the body of the woman who cleaves to his breast.
That one look of Henniker’s at Meta, in her strange yet familiar beauty, sitting captive to his spell, went through his flattered senses like the intoxication of strong drink. He did not take his eyes off her again. His face was pale with the complex excitement of a full house that was all one girl, and all hushed through joy of him. She sat so close to Callie, his reckless glances might have been meant for either of them ; Callie thought at first they were for her, but she did not think so long.
Something followed on the programme at which everybody laughed, but it meant nothing at all to Meta. She thought the supreme moment had come and gone, when a big Zouave in his barbaric reds and blues marched out and took his stand, back from the footlights, between the wings, and began that amazing performance with a rifle which is known as the “ Zouave drill.”
The dress was less of a disguise than the minstrel’s had been, and it was a sterner, manlier transformation. It brought out the fighting look in Henniker. The footlights were lowered, a smoke arose behind the wings, strange lurid colors were cast upon the figure of the soldier magician.
“ The stage is burning! ” gasped Meta, clutching Callie’s arm.
“ It’s nothing but red fire. You must n’t give yourself away so. Meta ; folks will take us for a lot of Sagebrushers.”
Meta settled back in her place with a fluttering sigh, and poured her soul into this new wonder.
But Henniker was not doing himself justice to-night, his comrades thought. No one present was so critical of him or so proud of him as they. A hundred times he had put himself through this drill before a barrack audience, and it had seemed as if he could not make a break. But to-night his nerve was not good. Once he actually dropped his piece, and a groan escaped the row of uniforms in the gallery. This made him angry ; he pulled himself up and did some good work for a moment, and then — “ Great Scott! he ’s lost it again! No, he has n’t. Brace up. man ! ” The rifle swerves, but Henniker’s knee flies up to catch it ; the sound of the blow on the bone makes the women shiver; but he has his piece, and sends it savagely whirling, and that miss was his last. His head was like the centre of a spinning-top or the hub of a flyingwheel. He felt ugly from the pain of his knee, but he made a dogged finish, and only those who had seen him at his best would have said that his drill was a failure.
Henniker knew, if no one else did, what had lost him his grip in the rifle act. His eyes, which should have been glued to his work, had been straying for another and yet one more look at Meta. Where she sat so still was the storm centre of emotion in the house, and when his eyes approached her they caught the nerve shock which shook his whole system and spoiled his fine work. He cared nothing for the success of his piping when he thought of the failure of his drill. The failure had come last, and, with other things, it left its sting.
On the way home to barracks, the boys were all talking, in their free way, about Meta Meadows,—the little broncho, they called her, in allusion to her great mane of hair, —which made Henniker very hot.
He would not own that his knee pained him, he would not have it referred to, and was ready, next day, to join the riders in squad drill, a new feature of which was the hurdles and ditchjumping and the mounted exercises, in which, as usual, Henniker had distinguished himself.
The Reservation is bounded on the southeast side, next the town, by an irrigation ditch, which is crossed by as many little bridges as there are streets that open out upon the common. (All this part of the town is laid out in “ additions,” and is sparsely built up.) Close to this division line, at right angles with it, are the dry ditches and hurdle embankments over which the stern young corporals put their squads, under the eye of the captain.
Out in the centre of the plain other squads are engaged in the athletics of horsemanship, a series of problems in action which embraces every sort of emergency a mounted man may encounter in the rush and throng of battle, and the means of instantly meeting it, and of saving his own life or that of a Comrade. So much more is made in these days of the individual powers of the man and horse that it is wonderful to see what an exact yet intelligently obedient combination they have become ; no less effective in a charge as so many pounds of live momentum to be hurled on the bayonet points, but much more selfreliant on scout service, or when scattered singly, in defeat, over a wide, strange field of danger.
On the regular afternoons for squad and troop drill, the ditch bank on the town side would be lined with spectators : ladies in light cotton dresses and beflowered hats, small barelegged boys and muddy dogs, the small boys’ sisters dragging bonnetless babies by the hand, and sometimes a tired mother who has come in a hurry to see where her little truants have strayed to, or a cowboy lounging sideways on his peaked saddle, condescending to look on at the riding of Uncle Sam’s boys. The crowd assorts itself as the people do who line the barriers at a bullfight: those who have parasols, to the shadow ; those who have barely a hat, to the sun.
Here, on the field of the gray-green plain, under the glaring tent roof of the desert sky, the national free circus goes on, to the screaming delight of the small boys, the fear and exultation of the ladies, and the alternate pride and disgust of the officers who have it in charge.
A squad of the boldest riders are jumping, six in line. One can see by the way they come that every man will go over : first the small ditch, hardly a check in the pace ; then a rush at the hurdle embankment, the horses’ heads very grand and Greek as they rear in a broken line to take it. Their faces are as strong and wild as the faces of the men. Their flanks are slippery with sweat. They clear the hurdles, and stretch out for the wide ditch,
“ Keep in line ! Don’t crowd ! ” the corporal shouts. They are doing well, he thinks. Over they all go ; and the ladies breathe again, and say to each other how much finer this sport is because it is work, and has a purpose in it.
Now the guidon comes, riding alone, and the whole troop is proud of him. The signal flag flashes erect from the trooper’s stirrup ; the horse is new to it, and fears it as if it were something pursuing him ; but in the face of horse and man is the same fixed expression, the sober recklessness that goes straight to the finish. If these do not go over, it will not be for want of the spur in the blood.
Next comes a pale young cavalryman just out of the hospital. He has had a fall at the hurdle the week before and strained his back. His captain sees that he is nervous and not yet fit for the work, yet cannot spare him openly. He invents an order, and sends him off to another part of the field where the other squads are manœuvring.
If it is not in the man to go over, it will not be in his horse, though a poor horse may put a good rider to shame ; but the measure of every man and every horse is taken by those who have watched them day by day.
The ladies are much concerned for the man who fails, — “ so sorry they are for him, as his horse blunders over the hurdle, and slackens when he ought to go free ; and of course he jibs at the wide ditch, and the rider saws on his mouth.
“ Give him his head ! Where are your spurs, man ? ’ the corporal shouts, and adds something under his breath which cannot be said in the presence of his captain. In they go. floundering, on their knees and noses, horse and man, and the ladies cannot see, for the dust, which of them is on top : but they come to the surface panting, and the man. whose uniform is of the color of the ditch, climbs on again, and the corporal’s disgust is heard in his voice as he calls, “ Ne-aaxt! ”
It need not be said that no corporal ever asked Henniker where were his spurs. To-day the fret in his temper fretted his horse, a young, nervous animal who did not need to know where his rider’s heels were quite so often as Henniker’s informed him.
“ Is that a non-commissioned officer who is off. and his horse scouring away over the plain ? What a dire mortification,” the ladies say. “ and what a consolation to the bunglers ! ”
No, it is the trumpeter. He was taking the hurdle in a rush of the whole squad; his check-strap broke, and his horse went wild, and slammed himself into another man’s horse. and ground his rider’s knee against his comrade’s carbine. It is Henniker who is down in the dust, cursing the carbine, and cursing his knee, and cursing the mischief generally.
The ladies strolled home through the heat, and said how glorious it was and how awfully real, and how one man got badly hurt; and they described in detail the sight of Henniker limping bareheaded in the sun, holding on to a comrade’s shoulder; how his face was a “ ghastly brown white.” and his eyes were bloodshot, and his black head dun with dust.
“ It was the trumpeter who blew so beautifully the other night, — who hurt his knee in the rifle drill,” they said. “ It was his knee that was hurt to-day. I wonder if it was the same knee ? “
It was the same knee, and this time Henniker went to the hospital and stayed there ; and being no malingerer, his confinement was bitterly irksome and a hurt to his physical pride.
The post surgeon’s house is the last one on the line. Then comes the hospital, but lower down the hill. The officer’s walk peaches it by a pair of steps that end in a slope of grass. There are moisture and shade where the hospital stands, and a clump of box-elder trees is a boon to the convalescents there. The road between barracks and canteen passes the angle of the whitewashed fence ; a wild syringa bush grows on the hospital side, and thrusts its blossoms over the wall. There is a broken board in the fence, which the syringa partly hides.
After three o’clock in the afternoon this is the coolest corner of the hospital grounds ; and here, on the grass, Henniker was lying, one day of the second week of his confinement.
He had been half asleep when a soft, light thump on the grass aroused him. A stray kitten had crawled through the hole in the fence, and, feeling her way down with her forepaws, had leaped to the ground beside him.
“Hey, pussy ! ” Henniker welcomed her pleasantly, and then was silent. A hand had followed the kitten through the hole in the fence, — a smooth brown hand no bigger than a child’s, but perfect in shape as a woman’s. The small fingers moved and curled enticingly.
“ Pussy, pussy ? Come, pussy ! ” a soft voice cooed. “ Puss. puss, puss ? Come, pussy ! ” The fingers groped about in empty air. “ Where are you. pussy? ” Henniker had quietly possessed him self of the kitten, which, moved by these siren tones, began to squirm a little and meekly to “ miew.” He reached forth his hand and took the small questing one prisoner ; then he let the kitten go. There was a brief speechless struggle, quite a useless one.
“ Let me go ! Who is it ? Oh dear ! Another pull. Plainly, from the tone, this last was feminine profanity.
Silence again, the hand struggling persistently, but in vain. The soft bare arm, working against the fence, became an angry red.
“ Softly, now. It’s only me. Did n’t yon know I was in hospital, Meta ?" “ Is it you, Henniker ? ”
“ Indeed it is. You would n’t begrudge me a small shake of your hand, after all these days ? ”
“ But you are not in hospital now ? ”
“ That’s what I am. I’m not in bad, but I’m going on three legs when I ’m going at all. I’m a house-bound man.” A heavy sigh from Henniker.
“ Have n’t you shaken hands enough now. Henniker ? ” beseechingly from the other side. “ I only wanted kitty; please put her through the fence.”
“ What’s your hurry ? ”
“ Have you got her there ? Callie left her with me. I must n’t lose her. Please? ”
“ Has Callie gone away ? ”
“ Why, yes, did n’t you know ? She has gone to stay with Tim’s wife.” (Tim Meadows was the eldest, the married son of the family.) “ She has a little baby, and they can’t get any help, and father would n’t let mother go down because it ’s bad for her to be over a cook stove, you know.”
“Yes, I know the old lady feels the heat.”
“ We are quite busy at the house. I came of an errand to the quartermaster-sergeant’s, and kitty followed me, and the children chased her. I must go home now.” urged Meta. “ Really, I did not think you would be so foolish, Henniker. I can’t see what fun there is in this ! ”
“ Yes, but Meta, I ’ve made a discovery, — here in your hand.”
“ In my hand ? What is it ? Let me see.” A violent determined pull, and a sound like a smothered explosion of laughter from Henniker.
“ Softly, softly, now. You ’ll hurt yourself, my dear.”
“ Is my hand dirty? It was the kitten, then ; her paws were all over sand.” “ Oh no. Great sign ! It’s worse than that. It ’ll not come off.”
“ I will see what it is! ”
“ But you can’t see unless I was to tell you. I’m a hand reader, did you know it ? I can tell your fortune by the lines on your palm. I ’m reading them off here just like a book.”
“ Good gracious! what do you see ? ”
“ Why, it ’s a most extraordinary thing! Your head line is that mixed up with your heart hue, ’pon me word I can’t tell which is which. Which is it, Meta ? Do you choose your friends with your head entirely, or is it the other way with you, dear ? ”
“ Oh, is that all ? I thought you could tell fortunes really. I don’t care what I am ; I want to know what I ’m going to do. Don’t you see anything that’s going to happen to me? ”
“ Lots of things. I see something that’s going to happen to you right now. I wonder did it ever happen to you before ? ”
“ What is it ? When is it coming ? ”
“ It has come. I will put it right here in your hand. But I shall want it back again, remember ; and don’t be giving it away, now, to anybody else.”
A mysterious pause. Meta felt a breath upon her wrist, and a kiss from a mustached lip was pressed into the hollow of her hand.
“ Keep that till I ask you for it:,” said Henniker quite sternly, and closed her hand tight with his own. The hand became an expressive little fist.
“I think you are just as mean and silly as you can be ! I ’ll never believe a word you say again.”
“Pussy,” remarked Henniker, in a mournful aside, “ go ask your mistress will she please forgive me. Tell her I ’m not exactly sorry, but I could n’t help it. Faith, I could n’t.”
“ I’m not her mistress,” said Meta.
It was a keen reminder, but Henniker did not seem to feel it much.
“Go tell Meta,” he corrected. “Ask her please to forgive me, and I ’ll take it back, — the kiss, I mean.”
“ I ’m going now,” said Meta. “ Keep the kitten, if you want her. She is n’t mine, anyway.”
But now the kitten was softly crowded through the fence by Henniker. and Meta, relenting, gathered her into her arms and carried her home.
It was certainly not his absence from Callie’s side that put Henniker in such a bad humor with his confinement. He grew morbid, and fell into treacherous dreaming, and wondered jealously about the other boys, and what they were doing with themselves these summer evenings, while he was loafing on crutches under the hospital trees. He was frankly pining for his freedom before Callie should return. He wanted a few evenings which he need not account for to anybody but himself : and he got his freedom, unhappily, in time to do the mischief of his dream, to put vain, selfish longings into the simple heart of Meta, and to spoil his own conscience toward his promised wife.
Henniker knew the ways of the Meadows cottage as well as if he had been one of the family. He knew that Meta, having less skill about the house than the older girls, took the part of chore-hoy, and fetched and drove away the cows.
It were simple enough to cross her evening track through the pale sagebrush, which betrayed every bit of contrasting color, the colors of Meta’s hairribbon and her evening frock ; it were simple enough, had she been willing to meet him. But Meta had lost confidence in the hero of the household. She had seen Henniker in a new light; and whatever her heart line said, her head line told her that she had best keep a good breadth of sagebrush between herself and that particular pair of broad blue shoulders that moved so fast above it. So as Henniker advanced the girl retreated, obscurely, with shy doublings and turnings, carefully managed not to confess that she was running away ; for that might vex Henniker, and she was still too loyal to the family bond to wish to show her sister’s lover an open discourtesy. She did not dream of the possibility of his becoming her own lover, but she thought him capable of going great lengths in his very peculiar method of teasing.
As soon as he understood her tactics Henniker changed his own. Without another glance in her direction he made off for the hills, but not too far from the trail the cows were taking; and choosing a secluded spot, behind a thickset clump of sage, he took out his rustic pipe and waited, and when he saw her he began to play.
Meta’s heart jumped at the first note. She stole along, drinking in the sounds, no one molesting or making her afraid. Ahead of her. as she climbed, the first range of hills east a glowing reflection in her face ; but the hills beyond were darker, cooler, and the blue-black pines stood out against the sky like trees of a far cloud-country cut off by some aerial gull’ from the most venturesome of living feet.
Henniker saw the girl coming, her face alight in the primrose glow, and he threw away all moments but the present. His breath stopped; then he took a deep inspiration, laid his lips to the pipe, and played, softly, subtly, as one who thinks himself alone.
She had discovered him, but she could not drag herself very far away from those sounds. She sat down upon the ground, at last, and gave herself up to listening. A springy sagebush supported her as she let herself sink back ; one arm was behind her head, to protect it from the prickly shoots.
“Meta,” said Henniker, “ are you listening ? I ’m talking to you now.”
It was all the same ; his voice was like another phrase of music. He went on playing, and Meta did not stir.
Another pause. “ Are you there still, Meta ? I was lonesome to-night, but you ran away from me. Was that friendly ? You like my music ; then why don’t you like me? Well, here’s for you again, ungrateful ! ” He went on playing.
The cows were wandering wide of the trail, towards the upper valley. Meta began to feel herself constrained, and not in the direction of her duty. She rose, cast her long braids over her shoulder, and moved resolutely away.
Henniker was absorbed in what he was saying to her with his pipe. When he had made a most seductive finish he paused, and spoke. He rose and looked about him. Meta was a long way off, down the valley, walking fast. He bounded after her, and caught her rudely around the waist.
“ See here, little girl, I won’t be made game of like this! I was playing to you, and you ran off and left me tooting like a fool. Was that right ? ”
“ I had to go ; it is getting late. The music was too sweet. It made me feel as if I could cry.” She lifted her longlashed eyes swimming in liquid brightness. Henniker caught her hand in his.
“ I was playing to you, Meta, as I play to no one else. Does a person steal away and leave another person discoursin’ to the empty air? I did n’t think you would want to make a fool of me.”
Meta drew away her hand and pressed it in silence on her heart. No woman of Anglo-Saxon blood, without a vast amount of training, could have said so much and said it so naturally with a gesture so hackneyed.
Henniker looked at her from under his eyebrows, biting his mustache. He took a few steps away from her, and then came back.
“ Meta,” he said, in a different voice, “ what was that thing you wore around your neck, the other night, at the minstrels, — that filigree gold thing, eh ? ”
The girl looked up, astonished; then her eyes fell, and she colored angrily. No Indian or dog could hate to be laughed at more than Meta; and she had been so teased about her innocent make-believe necklace ! Had the girls been spreading the joke ? She had suddenly outgrown the childish good faith that had made it possible for her to deck herself out in it, and she wished never to hear the thing mentioned again. She hung her head and would not speak.
Henniker’s suspicions were characteristic. Of course a girl like that must have a lover. Her face confessed that he had touched upon a tender spot.
“ It was a pretty thing.” he said coldly. “ I wonder if I could get one like it for Callie ? ”
“ I don’t think Callie would wear one even if you gave it to her,” Meta answered with spirit.
“ I say, won’t you tell me which of the hoys it is, Meta ? Won’t I wear the life out of him, just ! ” he added to himself.
“ Is what ? ”
“ Your best fellah ; the one who gave you that.”
“ There is n’t any. It was nothing. I won’t tell you what it was ! I made it myself, there! It was only ‘ butterballs.’ ”
“ Oh, good Lord ! ” laughed Henniker.
Meta thought he was laughing at her. It was too much ! The sweetness of his music was all jangled in her nerves. Tears would come, and then more tears because of the first.
Had Meta been the child of her father. she might have been sitting, that night, in one of the vine-shaded porches of the houses on the line, with several young lieutenants at her feet, and in her wildest follies with them she would have been protected by all the traditions and safeguards of her class. As she was the child of her mother, instead, she was out on the hills with Henniker. And how should the squaw’s daughter know the difference between protection and pursuit ?
When Henniker put his arm around her and kissed the tears from her eyes, she would not have changed places with the proudest lady of the line, — captain’s wife, lieutenant’s sweetheart, or colonel’s daughter of them all. Her chief, who blew the trumpet, was as great a man in Meta’s eyes as the officer who buckled on his sabre in obedience to the call.
As for Henniker, no girl’s head against his breast had ever looked so womanly dear as Meta’s ; no shut eyelids that he had ever kissed had covered such wild, sweet eyes. He did not think of her at all in words, any more than of the twilight. afterglow in which they parted, with its peculiar intensity, its pang of color. He simply felt her ; and it was nearest to the poetic passion of any emotion that he bad ever known.
That night Meta deceived her fostermother, and lying awake beside Callie’s empty cot, in the room which the two girls shared together, she treacherously prayed that it might be long before her sister’s return. The wild white lily had opened, and behold the stain !
It had been a hard summer for Tim Meadows’s family.--the second summer on a sagebrush ranch, their small capital all in the ground, the first hay crop ungathered, and the men to board as well as to pay. The boarding was Mrs. Tim’s part; yet many a young wife would have thought that she had enough to do with her own family to cook and wash for, and her first baby to take care of.
“ You ’ll get along all right.” the older mothers encouraged her. “ A summer baby is no trouble at all.”
No trouble, when the trouble is twenty years behind us, among the joys of the past. But Tim’s wife was wondering if she could hold out till cool weather came, when the rush of the farm work would be over, and her summer baby ” would be in short clothes and able to sit alone. The heat in their four - roomed cabin, in the midst of the treeless land, was an ordeal alone. To sleep in the house was impossible; the rooms and the windows were too small to admit enough air. They moved their beds outside, and slept like tramps under the stars ; and the broad light awoke them at earliest dawn, and the baby would never sleep till after ten at night, when the dry Plains wind began to fan the face of the weary land. Even Callie, whose part in the work was subsidiary, lost flesh, and the roses in her cheeks turned sallow, in the month she stayed on the ranch: but she would have been ashamed to complain, though she was heartsick for a word from Henniker. He had written to her only once.
It was Mrs. Meadows who thought it high time that Callie should come home. She had found a good woman to take her daughter’s place, and arranged the matter of pay herself. Tim had said they could get no help, hut his mother knew what that meant; such help as they could afford to pay for was worse than none.
It seemed a poor return to Callie for her sisterly service in the valley to come home and find her lover a changed man. Mrs. Meadows said he was like all the soldiers she had ever known,—light come, light go. But this did not comfort Callie much, nor more to be reminded what a good thing it was she had found him out in time.
Henniker was not scoundrel enough to make love to two girls at once, two semi-sisters, who slept in the same room and watched each other’s movements in the same looking-glass. It was no use pretending that he and Callie could “ heat their broth over again ; ” so the coolness came speedily to a breach, and Henniker no longer openly, in fair daylight, took the path to the cottage gate. But there were other paths.
He had found a way to talk to Meta with his trumpet. He sent her messages at guard - mounting, as the guard was forming, when, as senior trumpeter, he was allowed a choice in the airs he played ; and when he was orderly trumpeter, and could not come himself to say it, he sent her his good-night in the plaintive notes of taps.
This was the climax of Henniker’s flirtations : all that went before had been as nothing, all that came after was much worse than nothing. It was the one sincere as it was the one poetic passion of his life; and had it not cost him his self-respect through his baseness to Callie, and the treachery and dissimulation he was teaching to an innocent child, it might have made him a faithful man. As it was, his soldier’s honor slept: it was the undisciplined part of him that spoke to the elemental nature of the girl; and it was fit that a trumpet s reckless summons, or its brief inarticulate call, like the note of a wild bird to its mate, should be the language of his love.
Retreat had sounded, one evening in October, but it made no stir any more in the cottage where the girls had been so gay. Callie, putting tea on the table, remembered, as she heard the gun fire, how in the spring Henniker had said that when “ sound off ” was at six hie would drop in to supper some night, and show her how to make chili con carne, a dish that, every soldier knows who has served on the Mexican border. Her face grew hard, for these foolish, unsleeping reminders were as constant as the bugle calls.
The women waited for the head of the house ; but as he did not come, they sat down and ate quickly, saving the best dish hot for him.
They had finished, and the room was growing dusk, when he came in breezily, and called at once, as a man will, for a light. Meta rose to fetch it. The door stood open between the fore-room and the kitchen, where she was groping for a lamp. Mr. Meadows spoke in a voice too big for the room. He had just been conversing across the common with the quartermaster-sergeant, as the two men’s footsteps diverged by separate paths to their homes.
“ I hear there s going to be a change at the post! ” he shouted. “ The-th is going to leave this department, and C troop of the Second is coming from Custer. Sergeant says they are looking for orders any day now.”
Mrs. Meadows, before she thought, glanced at Callie. The girl winced, for she hated to he looked at like that. She held up her head and began to sing audaciously, drumming with her fingers on the table: —
That I love the soldiers so,
She will lock me up all day.
Till the soldiers march away.’ ”
“ What sort of a song is that? ” asked her father sharply.
Callie looked him in the eyes. “ Don’t you know that tune ? ” said she. “ Henniker plays that at guard-mount ; and sometimes he plays this : —
Though father and milker and a’ should go mad.”
“ Let him play what he likes,” said the father angrily. “ His saucy jig tunes are nothing to us. I ’m thankful no girl of mine is following after the army. It ’s a hard life for a woman, I can tell you. in the ranks.”
Callie pushed her chair back, and looked out of the window as if she had not heard.
“ Where’s Meta with that lamp ? Go and see what’s keeping her.”
“ Sit still,” said Mrs. Meadows. She went herself into the kitchen, but no one heard her speak a word, yet the kitchen was not empty.
There was a calico-covered lounge that stood across the end of the room ; Meta sat there, quite still, her back against the wall. Mrs. Meadows took one look at her ; then she lighted the lamp and carried it into the dining-room, and went back and shut herself in with Meta.
“ ‘ When my mother comes to know,’ ” hummed Callie. Her face was pale. She hardly knew that she was singing.
“ Stop that song ! ” her father shouted.
“ Go and see what s the matter with your sister.”
“Sister?” repeated Callie. “ Meta is no sister of mine.”
“ She "s your tent-mate, then. Ye grew nest-ripe under the same mother’s wing.”
“ Meta can use her own wings now, you will find. She grew nest-ripe very young.”
Father Meadows knew that there was trouble inside of that closed door, as there was trouble inside the white lips and shut heart of his frank and joyous Callie, but it was “the women’s business. He went out to attend to his own.
Irrigation on the scale of a small cottage garden is tedious work. It has intervals of silence and leaning on a hoe while one little channel fills or trickles into the next one ; and the water must he stopped out here, and floated longer there, like the bath over the surface of an etcher’s plate. Water was scarce and the rates were high, that summer, and there was a good deal of “ dry-point work with a hoe in Father Meadows s garden.
He had come to one of the discouraging places where the ground was higher than the water could he made to reach without a deal of propping and damming with shovelfuls of earth. This spot was close to the window of the kitchen chamber, which was “mother’s room.” She was in there talking to Meta. Her voice was deep with the maternal note of remonstrance ; Meta’s was high and sharp with excitement and resistanceHer faintness had passed, but Mother Meadows had been inquiring into causes.
“ I am married to him, mother ! He is my husband as much as be can be.”
“ It was never Father Magrath married you, or 1 should be knowing of it before now.”
“ No; we went before a judge, or a justice, in the town.”
“ In town ! Well, that is something ; but be sure there is a wrong or a folly somewhere when a man takes a young girl out of her home and out of her church to be married. If Henniker bad taken you ‘soberly, in the fear of God —
“He was sober 1 ” cried Meta. “I never saw him any other way.”
“ Mercy on us ! I was not thinking of the man’s habits. He’s too good to have done the way he has. That \s wliat 1 have against him. I don’t know wliat I shall say to Father Josette. The disgrace of this is on me, too, for not looking after my house better. 4 Never let her be humbled through her not being all white,’ the father said when he brought you to me, and God knows I never forgot that your little heart was white. I trusted you as 1 would one of my own, and was easier on you for fear of a mother’s natural bias toward her own flesh and blood ; and now to think that you would lie to me, and take a mail in secret that had deceived your sister before you. — as if nothing mattered so that you got what you wanted And down in the town, without tlie priest’s blessing or a Kiss from any of us belonging to you! It’s one way to get married, hut it’s not the right way.”
“ Did no white girl ever do as I have ? ” asked Meta, with a touch of sullenness.
“ Plenty of them, but they did n’t make their mothers happy.”
Meta stirred restively on the bed. “ Will Father Magrath have to talk to me, and Father Josette, aixl all the fathers ? ” she inquired. “ He said he never would have married Callie anyway, — not even if he could n’t have had me.”
“And the more shame to him to say such a thing to one sister of another! Callie is much the best off of you two.” Mrs. Meadows rose and moved heavily away from the bed. “ Well,” she said, “ most marriages are just one couple more. It’s very little of a sacrament there is about the common run of such things, but I hoped for something better when it came to my girls turn. However, sorrow is the sacrament God sends us, to give us a chance to learn a little something before we die. I expect you ’ll learn your lesson.”
She came back to the bed, and Meta moaned as she sat down again, to signify that she had been talked to enough. But the mother had something practical to say, though she could not say it without emotional emphasis, for her outraged feelings were like a flood that has come down, but has not yet subsided.
“ If there’s any way for you to go with Henniker when the troop goes, it’s with him you ought to he ; but if he has married without his captain’s consent, lie ’ll get no help at barracks. Do you know how that is, Meta ? ”
Meta shook her head; presently she forced herself to speak the truth. She did know that Henniker had told no one at the post of his marriage. She had never asked him why, nor had thought that it mattered.
“ Oh my ! 1 was afraid of that,” said Mrs. Meadows. “ The major knows it was Callie he was engaged to. Father went up to see him about Henniker. and the major as good as gave his word for him that he was a man we could have in the family. A commanding officer does n’t like such goings-on with respectable neighbors.”
Mrs. Meadows possibly overestimated the post commandant’s interest in these matters, but she had gratefully remembered his civility to her husband when he went to make fatherly inquiries. The major was a father himself, and had seemed to appreciate their anxiety about Callie’s choice. It was just as well that Meta should know that none of the constituted authorities were on the side of her lover’s defection.
Meta said nothing to all this. It did not touch her only as it bore on the one question, Was Henniker going to leave her behind him ?
“ How long is it since you have seen him, that he has n’t told you this news himself ? ” asked the mother.
“Last night; but perhaps he did not know.”
Henniker had known, as Mrs. Meadows supposed, but having to shift for himself in the matter of transportation for the wife he had never acknowledged, and seeing no way of providing for her without considerable inconvenience to himself, lie hail put off the pain of breaking to her the parting that must come. In their later consultations Meta had mentioned her "pony money,” as she called it, and Henniker had privately welcomed the existence of such a fund. It lightened the pressure of his own responsibility in the future, in case — but he did not formulate his doubts. There are more uncertainties than anything else, except hard work, in the life of an enlisted man.
Father Meadows purposely would not speak of Meta’s resources. He felt that Henniker had not earned his confidence in this or any other respect where his girls were concerned. Till Meta should come of age,—she was barely sixteen, — or until it could be known what sort of a husband she had got in Henniker, her bit of money was safest in her guardian’s hands.
So the orders came, and the transfer of troops was made ; and now it was the trumpeter of C troop that sounded the calls, and Henniker’s bold messages at guard-mounting and his tender good-night at taps called no more across the plain. The summer lilies were all dead on the hills, and the common was white with snow. But something in Meta’s heart said,—
Young buds sleep in the root’s white core.’
And she dried her eyes. The mother was very gentle with her, and Callie, hardeyed, saying nothing, watched her, and did her little cruel kindnesses that cut to the quick of her soreness and her pride.
When the Bannock brethren came, late in September, the next year, she walked the sagebrush paths to their encampment with her young son in her arms. They looked at the boy and said that it was good ; and when they asked after the father, and Meta told them that he had gone with his troop to Fort Custer, and that she waited for word to join him. they said it was not good, and they turned away their eyes in silence from her shame. The men did, but the women looked at her in a silence that said different things. Her heart went out to them, and their dumb soft glances brought healing to her wounds. What sorrow, what humiliation, was hers that they from all time had not known ? The men took little notice of her after that: she had lost caste both as maid and wife ; she was nothing now but a means of existence to her son. But between her and her dark sisters the natural bond grew strong. Old lessons that had lain dormant in her blood revived with the force of her keener intelligence, and supplanted later teachings that were of no use now except to make her suffer more.
It was impossible that Mother Meadows should not resent the wrong and insult to her own child ; she felt it increasingly as she came to realize the girl’s unhappiness. It grew upon her, and she could not feel the same towards Meta, who kept herself more and more proudly and silently aloof. She was one alone in the house, where no one spoke of the past to reproach her. where nothing but kindness was ever shown. The kindness was like the hand of pardon held out to her. Why did they think she wanted their forgiveness? She was not sorry for what she had done. She wanted nothing, only Henniker. So she crept away with her child and sat among the Bannock women, and was at peace with them whom she had never injured ; who beheld her unhappiness, but did not call it her shame.
When she walked the paths across the common, her eyes were always on the skyward range of hills that appeared to her farther away than ever, beyond a wider gulf, now that their tops were white and the clouds came low enough to hide them. Often yellow gleams shot out beneath the clouds and turned the valleys green. It seemed to her that Henniker was there : he was in the cold, bright north, and the trumpets called her, but she could not go, for the way was very long. Such words as these she would sometimes whisper to her dark sisters by the campfire, and once they said to her, “ Get strong and go ; we will show you the way.”
Henniker was taking life as it comes to an enlisted man in barracks. He thought of Meta many times, and of his boy, very tenderly and shamefully; and if he could have whistled them to him, or if a wind of luck could have blown them thither, he would have embraced them with joy, and shared with them all that he had. There was the difficulty. He had so little besides the very well fitting clothes on his back. His pay seemed to melt away, month by month, and where it went to the mischief only knew. Canteen got a good deal of it. Henniker was one of the popular men in barracks, with his physical expertness. his piping and singing and story-telling, and his high good humor at all times with himself and everybody else. He did not drink much except in the way of comradeship, but he did a good deal of that. He was a model trumpeter, and a very ornamental fellow when he rode behind his captain on full-dress inspection. more bedight than the captain himself with gold cords and tags and bullion : but he was not a domestic man. and the only person in the world who might perhaps have made him one was a very helpless. ignorant little person, and — she was not there.
It was a bad season for selling ponies. The Indians had arrived late with a larger band than usual, which partly represented an unwise investment they had made on the strength of their good fortune the year before. Certain big ditch enterprises had been starting then, creating a brisk demand for horses at prices unusual, especially in the latter end of summer. This year the big ditch had closed down, and was selling its own horses, or turning them out upon the range, and unbroken Indian ponies could hardly be given away.
The disappointment, of the Bannocks was very great, and their comprehension of causes very slow. It took some time for them tosatisfy themselves that Father Meadows was telling them a straight tale. It took more time still for consultations as to what should now be done with their unsalable stock. The middle of October was near, and the grumbling chiefs finally decided to accept their loss and go hunting. The squaws and children were ordered home to the Reservation by rail, as wards of the nation travel, to get permission of the agent for the hunt, and the men, with their ponies, were to ride overland and meet the women at Eagle Rock.
Thus Meta learned how an Indian woman may pass unchallenged from one part of the country to another, clothed in the freedom of her poverty. In this way the nation acknowledges a part of its ancient indebtedness to her people. No word had come from Honniker, though he had said that he should get his discharge in October. Meta’s resolve was taken. The Bannock women encouraged her, and she saw how simple it would be to copy their dress and slip away with them as far as their roads lay together; and thence, having gained practice in her part and become accustomed to its disguises, to go on alone to Custer, where her chief, her beautiful trumpeter, was sounding his last calls. She was wise in this resolution to see her husband, at whatever cost, before the time of his freedom should come ; but she was late in carrying it out.
Long before, she had turned over fruitlessly in her mind every means of getting money for this journey besides the obvious way of asking Father Meadows for her own. She had guessed that her friends were suspicious of Henniker’s good faith, and believed that if they should come to know of her intention of running away to follow him they would prevent her for her own good. — which was quite the case.
That was the point Father Meadows made with his wife, when she argued that Meta, being a married woman now, ought, to learn the purchasing power of money and its limitations by experimenting with a little of her own.
“ We shall do wrong if we keep her a child now,” she said.
“ But if she has money, she ’ll lay it by till she gets enough to slip off to her soldier with. There s that much Injun about her ; she ’ll follow to heel like a dog.”
Father Meadows could not have spoken in this way of Meta a year ago. She had lost caste with him, also.
“ Don’t, father.” the mother said, with a hurt look. “ She ’ll not follow far with ten dollars in her pocket: but that much I want to try her with. She’s like a child about shopping. She ’ll take anything at all, if it looks right and the man persuades her. And those Jew clerks will charge whatever they think they can get.”
Mrs. Meadows had her way, and tintrial sum was given to Meta one day. and the next day she and the child were missing.
At dusk, that evening, a group of Bannock squaws, more or less encumbered with packs and children, climbed upon one of the flat cars of a freight train bound for Pocatello. The engine steamed out of the station, and down the valley, and away upon the autumn plains. The next morning the Bannocks broke camp, and vanished before the hoar frost had melted from the sage. Their leave-taking had been sullen, and their answers to questions about Meta, with which Father Meadows had routed them out in the night, had been so unsatisfactory that he took the first train to the Fort Hall Agency. There he waited for the party of squaws from Bisuka; but when they came, Meta was not with them. They knew nothing of her, they said ; even the agent was deceived by their counterfeit ignorance. They could tell nothing, and were allowed to join their men at Eagle Rock, to go hunting into the wild country around Jackson’s Hole.
Father Meadows went back and relieved his wife’s worst fear. —that the girl had fulfilled the wrong half of her destiny, and gone back to hide her grief in the bosom of her tribe.
“Then you’ll find her at Custer,” said she. “You must write to the quartermaster-sergeant. And be sure you tell him she’s married to him. He may be carrying on with some one else by this time.”
Traveling as a ward of the nation travels: suffering as a white girl would suffer, from exposure and squalor, weariness and dirt, hut hearing her misery like a squaw, Meta came at last to Custer station. In five days, always on the outside of comforts that other travelers pay for, she had passed from the lingering mildness of autumn in southern Idaho into the early winter of the hard Montana north.
She was only fit for a sick-bed when she came into the empty station at Custer, and learned that she was still thirty miles away from the fort. In her makebelieve broken English, she asked a humble question about transportation. The station-keeper was called away that moment. by a summons from the wire. It was while she stood listening to the tapping of the message, and waiting to repeat her question, that she felt a frightening pain, sharp, like a knife sticking in her breast. She could take only short, breaths, yet longed for deep ones brace her lungs and strengthen her sick heart. She stepped outside and spoke to a man who was wheeling freight down the platform. She dared not throw off her fated disguise and say. “ I am the wife of Trumpeter Henniker. How shall I get to the fort ? ” for she had stolen a ride of a thousand miles, and she knew not what the penalty of discovery might be. She had borrowed a squaw’s wretched immunity, and she must pay the price for that which she had rashly coveted. She pulled her blanket about her face and muttered. “Which way — Fort Custer ? ”
The freight man answered by pointing to the road. Dark wind clouds rolled along the snow-white tops of the mountains. The plain was a howling sea of dust.
“No stage ? ” she gasped.
The man laughed and shook his head. “There’s the road. Injuns walk.” He went on with his baggage - truck, and did not look at her again. He had not spoken unkindly: the fact and his blunt way of putting it were equally a matter of course. Squaws who “ beat ” their way in on freight trains do not go out by stage.
Meta crept away in the lee of a pile of freight, and sat down to nurse her child. The infant, like herself, had taken harm from exposure to the cold ; his head passages were stopped, and when he tried to nurse he had to tight with suffocation and hunger both, and threw himself back in the visible act of screaming, but his hoarse little pipe was muted to a squeak. This, which sounds grotesque in the telling, was acute anguish for the mother to see. She covered her face with her blanket, and sobbed and coughed, and the pain tore her like a knife. But she rose, and began her journey. She had little conception of what she was undertaking, but it would have made no difference ; she must get there on her feet, since there was no other way.
She no longer carried her baby squawfashion. She was out of sight of the station, and she hugged it where the burden lay heaviest, on her heart. Her hands were not free, but she had cast away her bundle of food ; she could eat no more ; and the warmth of the child’s nestling body gave her all the strength she had, — that and her certainty of Henniker’s welcome. That he would he faithful to her presence she never doubted. He would see her coming, perhaps, and he would run to catch her and the child together in his arms. She could feel the thrill of his eyes upon her, and the half groan of joy with which he would strain her to his breast. Then she would take one deep, deep breath of happiness, — all, that pain ! — and let the anguish of it kill her if it must.
The snows on the mountains had come down and encompassed the whole plain ; the winter’s siege had begun. The winds were iced to the teeth, and they smote like armed men. They encountered Meta carrying some precious hidden thing to the garrison at Custer ; they seized her and searched her rudely, and left her. trembling and disheveled, sobbing along with her silly treasure in her arms. The dust rose in columns, and traveled with mocking becks and bows before her, or burst like a bomb in her face, or circled about her like a band of wild horses lashed by the hooting winds.
Meantime, Henniker, in span-new civilian dress, was rattling across the plain on the box seat of the ambulance, beside the soldier driver. The ambulance was late to catch the east-bound train, and the paymaster was inside; so the four stout mules laid back their ears and traveled, and the heavy wheels bounded from stone to stone of the dust-buried road. Henniker smoked hard in silence, and drew great breaths of cold air into his splendid lungs. He was warm and clean and sound and fit, from top to toe. He had been drinking bounteous farewells to a dozen good comrades, and though sufficiently himself for all ordinary purposes, he was not that self he would have wished to be had he known that one of the test moments of his life was before him. It was a mood with him of headlong, treacherous quiet, and the devil of all foolish desires was showing him the pleasures of the world. He was in dangerously good health ; he had got his discharge, and was off duty and off guard, all at once. He was a free man, though married. He was going to his wife, of course. Poor little Meta! God bless the girl, how she loved him ! Ah, those black-eyed girls, with narrow temples and sallow, deep-fringed eyelids, they knew how to love a man ! He was going to her by way of Laramie, or perhaps the coast. He might run upon a good thing over there, and start a bit of a home before he sent for her or went to fetch her ; it was all one. She rested lightly on his mind, and he thought of her with a tender, reminiscent sadness, — rather a curious feeling considering that he was to see her now so soon. Why was she always “poor little Meta” in his thoughts ?
Poor little Meta was toiling on, for “ Injuns walk.” The dreadful pain of coughing was incessant. The dust blinded and choked her. and there was a roaring in her ears which she confused with the night and day burden of the trains. She was in a burning fever that was fever and chill in one, and her mind was not clear, except on the point of keeping on ; for once down, she felt that she could never get up again. At times she fancied she was clinging to the locking, roaring platforms she had ridden on so long. The dust swirled around her — when had she breathed anything but dust! The ground swam like water mider her feet. She swayed, and seemed to be falling, — perhaps she did fall. But she was up and on her feet, the blanket cast from her head, when the ambulance drove straight towards her, and she saw him —
She had seen it coming, the ambulance, down the long, dizzy rise. The hills above were white as death ; a crooked gash of color rent the sky; the toothed pines stood black against that gleam, and through the ringing in her ears, loud and sweet, she heard the trumpets call. The cloud of delirium lifted, and she saw the uniform she loved ; and beside the soldier driver sat her white chief, looking down at her who came so late with joy, bringing her babe, — her sheaves, the harvest of that year’s wild sowing. But he did not seem to see her. She had not the power to speak or cry. She took one step forward and held up the child.
Then she fell down on her face in the road, for the beloved one had seen her, and had not known her, and had passed her by. And God would not let her make one sound.
How in Heaven’s name could it have happened ! Could any man believe it of himself ? Henniker put it to his reason. not to speak of conscience or affection, and never could explain, even to himself, that most unhappy moment of his life. If he had not a heart for any helpless thing in trouble, who had ? He was the joke of the garrison for his softness about dogs and women and children. Yet he had met his wife and baby on the open road, and passed them by, and owned them not, and still he called himself a man.
What he had seen at first had been the abject figure of a little squaw facing the wind, her bowed bead shrouded in her blanket, carrying something which her short arms could barely meet around, — a shapeless bundle. He did not think it a child, for a squaw will pack her baby always on her back. He had looked at her indifferently, but with condescending pity ; for the day was rough, and the road was long, even for a squaw. Then, in all the disfigurement of her dirt and wretchedness and wild attire, it broke upon him that this creature was his wife, the rightful sharer of his life and freedom ; and that animal-like thing she held up, that wrung its face and squeaked like a blind kitten, was his son.
Good God! He clutched the driver’s arm, and the man swore and jerked his mules out of the road, for the woman had stopped right in the track where the wheels were going. The driver looked back, but could not see her ; he knew that he had not touched her, only with the wind of his pace, so he pulled the mules into the road again, and the ambulance rolled on.
“ Stop ; let me get off. That woman is my wife.” Henniker heard himself saying the words, but they were never spoken to the ear. “Stop: let me get down,” the inner voice prompted ; but he did not make a sound, and the curtains flapped and the wheels went bounding along. They were a long way past the spot, and the station was in sight, when Henniker was heard to say hoarsely, “ Pick her up, can’t you, as you go back? ”
“ Pick up which ? ” asked the driver.
“The — that woman we passed just now.”
“ The see how she’s making it,” the man answered coolly. “I ain t much stuck on squaws. Acted like she was drunk or crazy.
Henniker’s face flushed, but he shuddered as if he were cold.
“ Pick her up, for the child’s sake, by God ! ” No man was ever more ashamed of himself than he as he took out a gold piece and handed it to the soldier. “ Give her this, Billy, — from yourself, you know. I ain’t in it.’’
Billy looked at Henniker, and then at the gold piece. It was a double eagle ; all that the husband had dared to offer as alms to his wife, but more than enough to arouse the suspicions that he feared.
“ Ain’t in it, eh ? ” thought the soldier. “ You knew the woman, and she knew you. This is conscience money.”But aloud he said, “ A fool and his money are soon parted. How do you know but I ’ll blow it in at canteen ? ”
“ I ’ll trust you,” said Henniker.
The men did not speak to each other again.
“ She’s one of them Bannocks that camped by old Pop Meadows’s place, down at Bisuka, I bet.” said the soldier to himself.
Henniker went on fighting his fight as if it had not been lost forever in that instant’s hesitation. A man cannot bethink himself : “ By the way, it strikes me that was my wife and child we passed on the road ! ” What he had done could never be explained without grotesque lying which would deceive nobody.
It could not be undone; it must be lived down. Henniker was much better at living things down than be was at explaining or trying to mend them.
After all, it was the girl’s own fault, putting up that wretched squaw act on him. To follow him publicly, and shame him before all the garrison, in that beastly Bannock rig ! Had she turned Bannock altogether and gone back to the tribe ? In that case let the tribe look after her ; he could have no more to do with her, of course.
He stepped into the smoking-car, and lost himself as quickly as possible in the interest of new faces around him, and the agreeable impressions of himself which he read in eyes that glanced and returned for another look at so much magnificent health and color and virility. His spot of turpitude did not show through. He was still good to look at; and to look the man that one would be goes a long way toward feeling that one is that man.
Mary Hallock Foote.