John Ermine


14. In Love

John Ermine lay on his back in his tent, with one leg crossed over the other. His eyes were idly attracted by the play of shadows on the ducking, but his mind was visiting other places. He was profoundly discontented. During his life he had been at all times an easy-going person--taught in a rude school to endure embarrassing calamities and long-continued personal inconveniences by flood and hunger, bullets and snow. He had no conception of the civilized trait of acquisitiveness whereby he had escaped that tantalization. He desired military distinction, but he had gotten that. No man strode the camp whose deeds were better recognized than his, not even the Colonel commanding.

His attitude toward mankind had always been patient and kindly except when urged into other channels by war. He even had schooled himself to the irksome labor at the prophet's mine, low delving which seemed useless; and had acquiesced while Crooked-Bear stuffed his head with the thousand details of white mentality; but now vaguely he began to feel a lack of something, an effort which he had not made--a something he had left undone; a difference and a distinction between himself and the officers who were so free to associate with the creature who had borrowed his mind and given nothing in return. No one in the rude campaigning which had been the lot of all since he joined had made any noticeable social distinction toward him--rather otherwise; they had sought and trusted him, and more than that, he had been singled out for special good will. He was free to call at any officer's quarters on the line, sure of a favorable reception; then why did he not go to Major Searles's? At the thought he lay heavier on the blanket, and dared not trust his legs to carry out his inclinations.

The camp was full of fine young officers who would trust their legs and risk their hearts--he felt sure of that. True, he was subject to the orders of certain officials, but so were they. Young officers had asked him to do favors on many occasions, and he did them, because it was clear that they ought to be done, and he also had explained devious plains-craft to them of which they had instantly availed themselves. The arrangement was natural and not oppressive.

Captain Lewis could command him to ford a rushing torrent: could tell him to stand on his head and be d---- quick about it, and of course he would do anything for him and Major Searles; they could ask nothing which the thinker would not do in a lope. As for Colonel Miles, the fine-looking man who led "ten thousand" in the great white battles, it was a distinction to do exactly what he ordered--every one did that; then why did he not go to Major Searles's quarters, he kept asking himself. He was not afraid of Colonel Miles or Captain Lewis or Major Searles or any officer, but--and the thought flashed, he was wary of the living eyes of the beloved photograph. Before these he could not use his mind, hands, or feet; his nerves shivered like aspen leaves in a wind, and the blood surged into his head until he could see nothing with his eyes; cold chills played up and down his spine; his hair crawled round under his sombrero, and he was most thoroughly miserable, but some way he no longer felt contentment except while undergoing this misery.

He lay on the blanket while his thoughts alternately fevered and chilled his brain. So intense were his emotions that they did more than disorder his mind: they took smart hold of his very body, gnawing and constricting his vitals until he groaned aloud.

No wild beast which roamed the hills was less conscious, ordinarily, of its bodily functions than Ermine. The machinery of a perfect physique had always responded to the vital principle and unwound to the steady pull of the spring of life, yet he found himself now stricken. It was not a thing for the surgeon, and he gradually gave way before its steady progress. His nature was a rich soil for the seeds of idealism which warm imagination constantly sprinkled, and the fruits became a consuming passion.

His thoughts were burning him. Getting up from his bed, he took a kettle and small axe, saddled his pony, and took himself off toward the river. As he rode along he heard the Englishman call out to him, but he did not answer. The pony trotted away, leaving the camp far behind, until he suddenly came to a little prairie surrounded by cottonwoods, in the middle of which were numbers of small wick-e-ups made by the Indians for sweat-baths. He placed his blankets and ponchos over one, made a fire and heated a number of rocks, divested himself of his clothing, and taking his pail of water got inside, crouching while he dashed handfuls of water over the hot rocks. This simple remedy would do more than cleanse the skin and was always resorted to for common ills by the Indians. After Ermine came out he plunged into the cold waters of the Yellowstone and dressed himself, but he did not feel any better. He mounted and rode off, forgetting his axe, blankets, and pail; such furnishings were unconsidered now. In response to a tremendous desire to do something, he ran his pony for a mile, but that did not calm the yearning.

"I feel like a piece of fly-blown meat," he said to himself. "I think I will go to Saw-Bones and let him have a hack at me; I never was so sick before." And to the cabin of the surgeon he betook himself.

That gentleman was fussing about with affairs of his own, when Ermine entered.

"Say, doctor, give me some medicine."

"What's the matter with you?" asked the addressed, shoving his sombrero to one side and looking up incredulously.

"Oh, I'm sick."

"Well, where are you sick?"

Ermine brushed his hair from off his forehead, slapped his leggings with his quirt, and answered, "Sick all over--kind of low fever, like a man with a bullet in him."

"Bilious, probably." And the doctor felt his pulse and looked into his bright, clear eyes.

"Oh, nonsense, boy--you are not sick. I guess loafing around is bad for you. The Colonel ought to give you a hundred miles with his compliments to some one; but here is a pill which will cure you." Saying which, the physician brought out his box containing wheat bread rolled into small balls, that he always administered to cases which he did not understand or to patients whom he suspected of shirking on "sick report."

Ermine swallowed it and departed.

The doctor tipped his sombrero forward and laughed aloud in long, cadenced peals as he sorted his vials.

"Sick!" he muttered; "funny--funny--funny sick! One could not kill him with an axe. I guess he is sick of sitting round--sick to be loping over the wild plains. Humph--sick!"

Ermine rode down the officers' row, but no one was to be seen. He pulled his horse's head up before Major Searles's door, but instantly slapped him with his whip and trotted on to his tent.

"If that fool Indian boy would only show himself," he thought; but the Indian was not a fool, and did not. Again Ermine found himself lying on his back, more discontented than ever. The day waned and the shadows on the tent walls died, but still he lay. Ramon stuck his head in at the flaps.

"Well--ah got your British man hees pony, Ermine--trade twenty-five dollar in goods for five pony."

"Oh, d---- the Englishman," was the response to this, whereat Ramon took a good long stare at his friend and withdrew. He failed to understand the abruptness, and went away wondering how Ermine could know that he had gouged Mr. Harding a little on the trade. Still this did not explain; for he had confidence in his own method of blinding his trail. He was a business man and a moral cripple.

The sun left the world and Ermine with his gloomy thoughts.

Late at night Captain Lewis sat at his desk writing letters, the lamp spotting on the white disk of his hat, which shaded his face, while the pale moonlight crept in through the open door. A sword clanked outside, and with a knock the officer of the guard hurriedly entered.

"Say, Bill, I have your scout Ermine down by the guard-house, and he's drunk. I didn't lock him up. Wanted to see you first. If I lock him up, I am afraid he'll pull out on you when he comes to. What shall I do?"

"The devil you say--Ermine drunk? Why, I never knew him to drink; it was a matter of principle with him; often told me that his mentor, whoever he was, told him not to."

"Well, he's drunk now, so there you are," said the officer.

"How drunk?"

"Oh, good and drunk."

"Can he walk?" Lewis queried.

"No; all he can do is lay on his back and shoot pretty thick Injun at the moon."

"Does every one know of this?"

"No; Corporal Riley and Private Bass of Company K brought him up from Wilmore's whiskey-shack, and they are sitting on his chest out back of the guard-house. Come on," spoke the responsible one.

Lewis jumped up and followed. They quickly made their way to the spot, and there Lewis beheld Ermine lying on his back. The moonlight cut his fine face softly and made the aureole of his light hair stand away from the ground. He moaned feebly, but his eyes were closed. Corporal Riley and Private Bass squatted at his head and feet with their eyes fastened on the insensible figure. Off to one side a small pile of Ermine's lethal weapons shimmered. The post was asleep; a dog barked, and an occasional cow-bell tinkled faintly down in the quartermaster's corral.

"Gad!" gasped Lewis, as he too stooped down. "How did this happen, Corporal?"

"Well, I suppose we might as well tell it as it is," Bass replied, indirectly conscious of the loyalty he owed his brother sinner. "We ran the guard, sir, and went down to Wilmore's, and when we got there, we found this feller pretty far gone with drink. He had his guns out, and was talking Injun, and he had Wilmore hiding out in the sage-brush. I beefed him under the ear, and we took his guns away, sir. I didn't hurt him much; he was easy money with his load, and then we packed him up here, and I told the officer of the guard, sir."

"Well," said Lewis, finally, "make a chair of your hands and bring him down to my quarters."

The soldiers gathered up the limp form, while Lewis took the belt and pistols.

"No use of reporting this?"

"No," answered the officer of the guard.

The men laid him out on the Captain's bed after partially disrobing him, and started to withdraw.

"Go to your quarters, men, and keep your mouths shut; you will understand it is best for you."

The two saluted and passed out, leaving the Captain pacing the floor, and groping wildly for an explanation.

"Why, I have offered that boy a drink out of my own flask on campaign, when we were cold enough and tired enough to make my old Aunt Jane weaken on her blue ribbon; but he never did. That was good of the men to bring him in, and smart of Welbote not to chuck him in the guard-house. Sailor's sins! he'd never stand that; it would kill his pride, and he has pride, this long-haired wild boy. He may tell me in the morning, but I am not so sure of that. Laying down on his luck is not the way he plays it. I don't doubt it was an accident, and maybe it will teach him a d---- good lesson; he'll have a head like a hornets' nest to-morrow morning."

The Captain, after a struggle with the strange incident, sought his couch, and when he arose next morning betook himself to Ermine's room. He found him asleep amid the tangle of his wonderful hair, and he smiled as he pictured the scout's surprise when he awoke; in fact, he pulled himself together for a little amusement. A few remarks to reënforce the headache would do more good than a long brief without a big 'exhibit A,' such as would accompany the awakening.

The steady gaze of the Captain awoke the scout, and he opened his eyes, which wandered about the room, but displayed no interest; they set themselves on the Captain's form, but refused to believe these dreams, and closed again. The Captain grinned and addressed the empty room:--

"How would you like to be a millionnaire and have that headache? Oh, gee--'twould bust a mule's skull."

The eyes opened again and took more account of things; they began to credit their surroundings. When the scene had assembled itself, Ermine sat up on the bed, saying, "Where am I? what hit me?" and then he lay down again. His dream had come true; he was sick.

"You are in my bed, so stay there, and you will come out all right. You have been making the Big Red Medicine; the devil is pulling your hair, and every time he yanks, he will say, 'John Ermine, don't do that again.' Keep quiet, and you will get well." After saying which Lewis left the room.

All day long the young man lay on the bed; he was burning at the stake; he was being torn apart by wild horses; the regimental band played its bangiest music in his head; the big brass drum would nearly blow it apart; and his poor stomach kept trying to crawl out of his body in its desperate strife to escape Wilmore's decoction of high-wine. This lasted all day, but by evening the volcano had blown itself out, when a natural sleep overcame him.

Captain Lewis had the knowledge of certain magic, well enough known in the army, to alleviate Ermine's condition somewhat, but he chose not to use it; he wanted 'exhibit A' to wind up in a storm of fireworks.

As Ermine started out the next morning Lewis called, "Hey, boy, how did you come to do it?"

Ermine turned a half-defiant and half-questioning front to Lewis and tossed his matted hair. "I don't know, Captain; it all seems as though I must have fallen off the earth; but I'm back now and think I can stay here."

"Well, no one knows about it except myself, so don't say a word to any one, and don't do it again--sabe?"

"You bet I won't. If the soldiers call that drowning their sorrows, I would rather get along with mine."