John Ermine


13. Playing With Fire

On the following morning Harding hunted up John Ermine, and the two walked about together, the Englishman trying to fire the scout with his own passion for strange lands and new heads.

To the wild plainsman the land was not new; hunting had its old everyday look, and the stuffed heads of game had no significance. His attention was constantly interrupted by the little flutter of color made more distinct by a vesper before the photograph.

"Let us go and find your friend, Wolf-Voice," said Harding, which they did, and the newcomer was introduced. The Englishman threw kindly, wondering eyes over the fiercely suspicious face of the half-breed, whose evil orbs spitted back at him.

"Ah, yees--you was go hunt. All-right; I weel mak' you run de buffalo, shoot dose elk, trap de castor, an you shall shake de han' wid de grizzly bear. How much money I geet--hey?"

"Ah, you will get the customary wages, my friend, and if you give me an opportunity to shake hands with a grizzly, your reward will be forthcoming," replied the sportsman.

"Very weel; keep yur heye skin on me, when you see me run lak hell--weel, place where I was run way from, dare ees mousier's grizzly bear, den you was go up shake han', hey?"

Harding laughed and offered the man a cigar, which he handled with four fingers much as he might a tomahawk, having none of the delicate art native to the man of cigars or cigarettes. A match was proffered, and Wolf-Voice tried diligently to light the wrong end. The Englishman violently pulled Ermine away, while he nearly strangled with suppressed laughter. It was distinctly clear that Wolf-Voice must go with them.

"Your friend Wolf-Voice seems to be quite an individual person."

"Yes, the soldiers are always joshing him, but he doesn't mind. Sometimes they go too far. I have seen him draw that skinning-knife, and away they go like a flock of birds. Except when he gets loaded with soldier whiskey, he is all right. He is a good man away from camp," said Ermine.

"He does not appear to be a thoroughbred Indian," observed Harding.

"No, he's mixed; he's like that soup the company cooks make. He is not the best man in the world, but he is a better man in more places than I ever saw," said Ermine, in vindication.

"Shall we go down to the Indian camp and try to buy some ponies, Ermine?"

"No, I don't go near the Sioux; I am a kind of Crow. I have fought with them. They forgive the soldiers, but their hearts are bad when they look at me. I'll get Ramon to go with you when you buy the horses. Ramon was a small trader before the war, used to going about with a half-dozen pack-horses, but the Sioux ran him off the range. He has pack saddles and rawhide bags, which you can hire if you want to," was explained.

"All right; take me to Ramon if you will."

"I smoke," said Ermine as he led the way.

Having seen that worthy depart on his trading mission with Harding in tow, Ermine felt relieved. Impulse drew him to the officers' row, where he strolled about with his hands in his cartridge-belt. Many passing by nodded to him or spoke pleasantly. Some of the newly arrived ladies even attempted conversation; but if the soldiers of a year ago were difficult for Ermine, the ladies were impossible. He liked them; their gentle faces, their graceful carriage, their evident interest in him, and their frank address called out all his appreciation. They were a revelation after the squaws, who had never suggested any of these possibilities. But they refused to come mentally near him, and he did not know the trail which led to them. He answered their questions, agreed with whatever they said, and battled with his diffidence until he made out to borrow a small boy from one mother, proposing to take him down to the scout camp and quartermaster's corral to view the Indians and mules.

He had thought out the proposition that the Indians were just as strange to the white people as the white people were to them, consequently he saw a social opening. He would mix these people up so that they could stare at each other in mutual perplexity and bore one another with irrelevant remarks and questions.

"Did Mr. Butcher-Knife miss Madam Butcher-Knife?" asked a somewhat elderly lady on one occasion, whereat the Indian squeezed out an abdominal grunt and sedately observed to "Hairy-Arm," in his own language, that "the fat lady could sit down comfortably," or words that would carry this thought.

The scout who was acting as their leader upon this occasion emitted one loud "A-ha!" before he could check himself. The lady asked what had been said. Ermine did not violate a rule clearly laid down by Crooked-Bear, to the effect that lying was the sure sign of a man's worthlessness. He answered that they were merely speaking of something which he had not seen, thus satisfying his protégé.

After a round or two of these visits this novelty was noised about the quarters, and Ermine found himself suddenly accosted. By his side was the original of his cherished photograph, accompanied by Lieutenant Butler of the cavalry, a tall young man whose body and movements had been made to conform to the West Point standards.

"Miss Searles has been presented, I believe. She is desirous of visiting the scout camp. Would you kindly take us down?"

John Ermine's soul drifted out through the top of his head in unseen vapors, but he managed to say that he would. He fell in beside the young woman, and they walked on together. To be so near the reality, the literal flesh and blood of what had been a long series of efflorescent dreams, quite stirred him. He gathered slowly, after each quick glance into the eyes which were not like those in the photograph; there they were set and did not resent his fancies; here they sparkled and talked and looked unutterable things at the helpless errant.

Miss Searles had been to a finishing school in the East, and either the school was a very good one or the little miss exceedingly apt, but both more probably true. She had the delicate pearls and peach-bloom on her cheeks to which the Western sun and winds are such persistent enemies, and a dear little nose tipped heavenward, as careless as a cat hunting its grandmother.

The rustle of her clothes mingled with little songs which the wind sang to the grass, a faint freshness of body with delicate spring-flower odors drifted to Ermine's active nostrils. But the eyes, the eyes, why did they not brood with him as in the picture? Why did they arch and laugh and tantalize?

His earthly senses had fled; gone somewhere else and left a riot in his blood. He tripped and stumbled, fell down, and crawled over answers to her questions, and he wished Lieutenant Butler was farther away than a pony could run in a week.

She stopped to raise her dress above the dusty road, and the scout overrode the alignment.

"Mr. Ermine, will you please carry my parasol for me?"


The object in question was newer to him than a man-of-war would have been. The prophet had explained about the great ships, but he had forgotten parasols. He did not exactly make out whether the thing was to keep the sun off, or to hide her face from his when she wanted to. He retraced his steps, wrapped his knuckles around the handle with a drowning clutch, and it burned his hand. If previously it had taken all his force to manoeuvre himself, he felt now that he would bog down under this new weight. Atlas holding the world had a flying start of Ermine.

He raised it above her head, and she looked up at him so pleasantly, that he felt she realized his predicament; so he said, "Miss Searles, if I lug this baby tent into that scout camp, they will either shoot at us, or crawl the ponies and scatter out for miles. I think they would stand if you or the Lieutenant pack it; but if I do this, there won't be anything to see but ponies' tails wavering over the prairie."

"Oh, thank you; I will come to your rescue, Mr. Ermine." And she did.

"It is rather ridiculous, a parasol, but I do not intend to let the sun have its way with me." And glancing up, "Think if you had always carried a parasol, what a complexion you would have."

"But men don't carry them, do they?"

"Only when it rains; they do then, back in the States," she explained.

Ermine replied, "They do--hum!" and forthwith refused to consider men who did it.

"I think, Mr. Ermine, if I were an Indian, I should very much like to scalp you. I cannot cease to admire your hair."

"Oh, you don't have to be an Indian, to do that. Here is my knife; you can go ahead any time you wish," came the cheerful response.

"Mr. Butler, our friend succumbs easily to any fate at my hands, it seems. I wonder if he would let me eat him," said the girl.

"I will build the fire and put the kettle on for you." And Ermine was not joking in the least, though no one knew this.

They were getting into the dangerous open fields, and Miss Searles urged the scout in a different direction.

"Have you ever been East?"

"Yes," he replied, "I have been to Fort Buford."

The parasol came between them, and presently, "Would you like to go east of Buford--I mean away east of Buford," she explained.

"No; I don't want to go east or west, north or south of here," came the astonishing answer all in good faith, and Miss Searles mentally took to her heels. She feared seriousness.

"Oh, here are the Indians," she gasped, as they strode into the grotesque grouping. "I am afraid, Mr. Ermine--I know it is silly."

"What are you afraid of, Miss Searles?"

"I do not know; they look at me so!" And she gave a most delicious little shiver.

"You can't blame them for that; they're not made of wood." But this lost its force amid her peripatetic reflections. "That's Broken-Shoe; that's White-Robe; that's Batailleur--oh, well, you don't care what their names are; you probably will not see them again."

"They are more imposing when mounted and dashing over the plains, I assure you. At a distance, one misses the details which rather obtrude here," ventured Butler.

"Very well; I prefer them where I am quite sure they will not dash. I very much prefer them sitting down quietly--such fearful-looking faces. Oh my, they should be kept in cages like the animals in the Zoo. And do you have to fight such people, Mr. Butler?"

"We do," replied the officer, lighting a cigarette. This point of view was new and amusing.

One of the Indians approached the party. Ermine spoke to him in a loud, guttural, carrying voice, so different from his quiet use of English, that Miss Searles fairly jumped. The change of voice was like an explosion.

"Go back to your robe, brother; the white squaw is afraid of you--go back, I say!"

The intruder hesitated, stopped, and fastened Ermine with the vacant stare which in such times precede sudden, uncontrollable fury among Indians.

Again Ermine spoke: "Go back, you brown son of mules; this squaw is my friend; I tell you she is afraid of you. I am not. Go back, and before the sun is so high I will come to you. Make this boy go back, Broken-Shoe; he is a fool."

The old chieftain emitted a few hollow grunts, with a click between, and the young Indian turned away.

"My! Mr. Ermine, what are you saying? Have I offended the Indian? He looks daggers; let us retire--oh my, let us go--quick--quick!" And Ermine, by the flutter of wings, knew that his bird had flown. He followed, and in the safety of distance she lightly put her hand on his arm.

"What was it all about, Mr. Ermine? Do tell me."

Ermine's brain was not working on schedule time, but he fully realized what the affront to the Indian meant in the near future. He knew he would have to make his words good; but when the creature of his dreams was involved, he would have measured arms with a grizzly bear.

"He would not go back," said the scout, simply.

"But for what was he coming?" she asked.

"For you," was the reply.

"Goodness gracious! I had done nothing; did he want to kill me?"

"No, he wanted to shake hands with you; he is a fool."

"Oh, only to shake hands with me? And why did you not let him? I could have borne that."

"Because he is a fool," the scout ventured, and then in tones which carried the meaning, "Shake hands with you!"

"I see; I understand; you were protecting me; but he must hate you. I believe he will harm you; those dreadful Indians are so relentless, I have heard. Why did we ever go near the creatures? What will he do, Mr. Ermine?"

The scout cast his eye carefully up at the sky and satisfied the curiosity of both by drawling, "A--hu!"

"Well--well, Mr. Ermine, do not ever go near them again; I certainly would not if I were you. I shall see papa and have you removed from those ghastly beings. It is too dreadful. I have seen all I care to of them; let us go home, Mr. Butler."

The two--the young lady and the young man--bowed to Ermine, who touched the brim of his sombrero, after the fashion of the soldiers. They departed up the road, leaving Ermine to go, he knew not where, because he wanted to go only up the road. The abruptness of white civilities hashed the scout's contempt for time into fine bits; but he was left with something definite, at least, and that was a deep, venomous hatred for Lieutenant Butler; that was something he could hang his hat on. Then he thought of the "fool," and his footsteps boded ill for that one.

"That Ermine is such a tremendous man; do you not think so, Mr. Butler?"

"He seems a rather forceful person in his simple way," coincided the officer. "You apparently appeal to him strongly. He is downright romantic in his address, but I cannot find fault with the poor man. I am equally unfortunate."

"Oh, don't, Mr. Butler; I cannot stand it; you are, at least, sophisticated."

"Yes, I am sorry to say I am."

"Oh, please, Mr. Butler," with a deprecating wave of her parasol, "but tell me, aren't you afraid of them?"

"I suppose you mean the Indians. Well, they certainly earned my respect during the last campaign. They are the finest light-horse in the world, and if they were not encumbered with the women, herds, and villages; if they had plenty of ammunition and the buffalo would stay, I think there would be a great many army widows, Miss Searles."

"It is dreadful; I can scarcely remember my father; he has been made to live in this beast of a country since I was a child." Such was the lofty view the young woman took of her mundane progress.

"Shades of the vine-clad hills and citron groves of the Hudson River! I fear we brass buttoners are cut off. I should have been a lawyer or a priest--no, not a priest; for when I look at a pretty girl I cannot feel any priesthood in my veins."

Miss Searles whistled the bars of "Halt" from under the fortification of the parasol.

"Oh, well, what did the Lord make pretty women for?"

"I do not know, unless to demonstrate the foolishness of the line of Uncle Sam's cavalry," speculated the arch one. "Mr. Butler, if you do not stop, I shall run."

"All right; I am under arrest, so do not run; we are nearly home. I reserve my right to resume hostilities, however. I insist on fair play with your sage-brush admirer. Since we met in St. Louis, I have often wondered if we should ever see each other again. I always ardently wished we could."

"Mr. Butler, you are a poor imitation of our friend Ermine; he, at least, makes one feel that he means what he says," she rejoined.

"And you were good enough to remind me that I was sophisticated."

"I may have been mistaken," she observed. She played the batteries of her eyes on the unfortunate soldier, and all of his formations went down before them. He was in love, and she knew it, and he knew she knew it.

He felt like a fool, but tried not to act one, with the usual success of lovers. He was an easy victim of one of those greatest of natural weaknesses men have. She had him staked out and could bring him into her camp at any time the spirit moved her. Being a young person just from school, she found affairs easier than she had been led to suspect. In the usual girl way she had studied her casts, lures, and baits, but in reality they all seemed unnecessary, and she began to think some lethal weapon which would keep her admirers at a proper distance more to the purpose.

The handsome trooper was in no great danger, she felt, only she must have time; she did not want everything to happen in a minute, and the greatest dream of life vanish forever. Besides, she intended never, under any circumstances, to haul down her flag and surrender until after a good, hard siege.

They entered the cabin of the Searles, and there told the story of the morning's adventures. Mrs. Searles had the Indians classified with rattlesnakes, green devils, and hyenas, and expected scenes of this character to happen.

The Major wanted more details concerning Ermine. "Just what did he say, Butler?"

"I do not know; he spoke in some Indian language."

"Was he angry, and was the Indian who approached you mad?"

"They were like two dogs who stand ready to fight,--teeth bared, muscles rigid, eyes set and just waiting for their nerves to snap," explained Butler.

"Oh, some d---- Indian row, no one knows what, and Ermine won't tell; yet as a rule these people are peaceful among themselves. I will ask him about it," observed the Major.

"Why can't you have Mr. Ermine removed from that awful scout camp, papa? Why can't he be brought up to some place near here? I do not see why such a beautiful white person as he is should have to associate with those savages," pleaded the graceful Katherine.

"Don't worry about Ermine, daughter; you wouldn't have him rank the Colonel out of quarters, would you? I will look into this matter a little."

Meanwhile the young scout walked rapidly toward his camp. He wanted to do something with his hands, something which would let the gathering electricity out at his finger-ends and relieve the strain, for the trend of events had irritated him.

Going straight to his tent, he picked up his rifle, loaded it, and buckled on the belt containing ammunition for it. He twisted his six-shooter round in front of him, and worked his knife up and down in its sheath. Then he strode out, going slowly down to the scout fire.

The day was warm; the white-hot sun cut traceries of the cottonwood trees on the ground. A little curl of blue smoke rose straight upward from the fire, and in a wide ring of little groups sat or lounged the scouts. They seemingly paid no attention to the approach of Ermine, but one could not determine this; the fierce Western sun closes the eyelids in a perpetual squint, and leaves the beady eyes a chance to rove unobserved at a short distance.

Ermine came over and walked into the circle, stopping in front of the fire, thus facing the young Indian to whom he had used the harsh words. There was no sound except the rumble of a far-off government mule team and the lazy buzz of flies. He deliberately rolled a cigarette. Having done this to his satisfaction, he stooped down holding it against the coals, and it was ages before it caught fire. Then he put it to his lips, blew a cloud of smoke in the direction of his foe, and spoke in Absaroke.

"Well, I am here."

The silence continued; the Indian looked at him with a dull steady stare, but did nothing; finally Ermine withdrew. He understood; the Indian did not consider the time or opportunity propitious, but the scout did not flatter himself that such a time or place would never come. That was the one characteristic of an Indian of which a man could be certain.