John Ermine

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17. A Proposal





"Oh! I say, Captain Lewis, I am all ready to start. I have Ramon, a cook, and Wolf-Voice, together with pack-animals, but I can't get your man Ermine to say when he will go."

"That's odd, Harding; I don't know of anything to detain him. But go slow; he's like all these wild men up here; when they will they will, and when they won't, they'll lay down on you. I'll go round and scout him up. What is the matter so far as you can determine?"

"I can't determine. He says he will go, but will not name any exact time; tells me to push on and that he will catch up. That is a curious proposition. He is willing to take my money--"

"Oh! whoa up, Mr. Harding! That fellow doesn't care anything about your money--make no mistake about that. Money means no more to him than to a blue jay. He wanted to go back to his own country and was willing, incidentally, to take you. I'll see; you wait here awhile;" saying which, Captain Lewis went in search of his man, whom he found whittling a stick pensively.

"Hello, my boy, you don't seem to be very busy. Suppose your heart is out in the hills chasing the elk and bear."

"No, Captain; I don't care much about the hills."

"Or the Crow squaws?"

"D---- the Crow squaws!" And Ermine emphasized this by cutting his stick through the middle.

"Want to stay here?"

"Yes, I am getting so I like this camp; like the soldiers--like the wagons--kind of like the whole outfit."

"Like to chase wolves?" interrupted the officer.

Ermine slowly turned up his head and settled his fathomless blue eyes on Lewis, but he said nothing.

"Well, Mr. Harding is all set. You said you would go with him; a soldier must keep his word."

"I will go with him."

"When?"

Again Ermine shaved some delicate slivers off the stick; suddenly he threw it away, shut up his knife, and arose. "If Mr. Harding will pull out now, Wolf-Voice will show him the way. I shall know where the Indian takes him, and in four days I will walk into his camp. The pack-ponies travel slowly, I do not care to punch pack-horses; that will do for Ramon and the cook."

"Does that go?"

"I have said it. Did I ever lie, Captain Lewis?"

"All right. Mr. Harding will go now. I will attend to that." With this Lewis left him, and in two hours the little cavalcade trotted westward, out into the hot, sunlit plains, carrying faith in Ermine's word. The scout, leaning on a log stable, saw them go.

Three days took their slow departure, and on the morrow Ermine would have to make good his word to follow the Englishmen. He would have liked to stay even if his body suffered slow fire, but excuses would not avail for his honor. A soldier's honor was something made much of in these parts; it pegged higher than the affairs of the flesh.

He had not been able to see Miss Searles, and he wondered what she would feel, or think, or say. He was a thief when he remembered the stolen kisses, and he dared not go to the Searleses' home to inquire after her. All this diffidence the public put down to apathy; he had done his duty, so why further concern himself?

After supper he strolled along the officers' row, desperately forlorn, but hoping and yearning, barely nodding his head to passers-by.

Major Searles approached him with the nervous stride habitual to a soldier, and held out his hand, saying bluffly: "Of course, I can't thank you enough for your attention to my daughter, Ermine. But for your fortunate presence there at the time of the accident, things might have been bad; how bad I fear to contemplate. Come to my quarters, my boy, and allow my daughter to thank you. She is quite recovered. She is sitting out-of-doors. She hasn't been abroad much. Such a fall would have killed an older woman."

Together they made their way to the house, and Ermine passed under the ramada with his hat off. Mrs. Searles shook his hand and said many motherly things due on such occasions.

"Please forgive me if I do not rise; it is the doctor's orders, you know." And Miss Searles extended her hand, which the scout reverently took. To have seen him one would have fancied that, after all, manners must have been made before men; which idea is, of course, absurd.

In response to their inquiries, he retold the story of the accident and of his ministrations and perplexities. He did not embellish, but left out very important details, wondering the while if they were dead to all but his memory.

"She should not ride so poor a horse," ventured Ermine.

"She should not have been left unattended." And this severity was directed at Major Searles by his wife, to which he feebly pleaded vain extenuations, without hope of their acceptance.

"No, no, my dear; you were always a careless person; one is never safe to place dependence on you in minor matters. I declare, all men are alike --leastwise soldiers are. A blanket and a haversack, and the world may wag at will, so far as they concern themselves." Rising, she adjusted her hat, saying: "I must run down to Mrs. Taylor's for a minute. Her baby is very ill, and she has sent for me. You will stay here, Major," and she swept out.

"When do you depart for your hunting with Mr. Harding, Ermine?" asked Searles.

"I must go soon. He left camp three days ago, and I have promised to follow."

"I should think you would be delighted to hunt. I know I should if I were a man," cheerfully remarked the young woman.

"I have always hunted, Miss Searles. I think I should like to do something else."

"What, pray?"

"Oh, I don't know, something with a white shirt in it."

"Isn't that foolish? There is no more fun in a white shirt than there is in a buckskin one, and there is no fun in either when it rains, I am told."

A passing officer appealed to the Major to come out; he was needed, together with other requests to follow, with reasons why haste was important.

"All right, I will be back in a moment, daughter." And the officer took himself off in complete disobedience of his wife's orders.

"Don't be gone long, father; there is no one here but Mary and the striker. You know I cannot depend on them."

"You keep the wolves off, Ermine; I won't be gone a minute." And Ermine found himself alone again with Katherine.

This time she was not pale unto death, but warm and tingling. Her lover's hands and feet took better care of themselves on a horse than in a chair, but the gloom under the porch at least stayed some of the embarrassment which her eyes occasioned him. Indeed, it is well known that lovers prefer night attacks, and despite the law and the prophets, they manage better without an audience.

She gained a particularly entrancing attitude in her chair by a pussy-cat wiggle which let the point of her very small foot out of concealing draperies. One hand hung limply toward Ermine over the arm of the chair, and it seemed to scream out to him to take hold of it.

"And when do you go, Mr. Ermine?"

This seemed safe, and along the lines of his self-interest.

"I go to-morrow; I have given my word."

"Very naturally there can be nothing to delay you here," she continued; "the fighting is over, I hear."

"There is something in the world beside fighting."

"Yes?" she evaded.

"Yes, you detain me."

"I!" and the little foot went back to its nest; the extended hand rose in protest. "I detain you! My dear Mr. Ermine, I do not understand how I detain you; really, I am quite recovered from my fall."

"You may have got well, Miss Searles, but I am not. Do you remember?"

"Remember--remember--do I remember? What should I remember? I am told you were very good to me, but I was laboring under such a shock at the time that you cannot expect much of my memory."

"I was but little better off."

"And were you injured also?"

"Yes, so bad that I shall never get well unless you come to my rescue."

"I come to your rescue! What can I do?" Her sword waved in tierce and seconde.

"Be my wife; come, girl, be my wife."

He had beaten down her guard; the whole mass was in the fire. The dam had broken; he led his forlorn hope into the breach. "Come, Katherine, say you will marry me; say it and save me."

"Oh," she almost screamed, "I can't do that; why, my mother would never consent to it," she appealed in bewilderment.

He had risen and taken a step forward. "What has your mother to say? Say you will be my wife, Katherine."

"Careful, careful, Mr. Ermine; restrain yourself, or I shall call a servant. No, no, I cannot marry you. Why, what should we do if I did? We should have to live in the mule corral."

"No, come to the mountains with me. I will make you a good camp."

She almost laughed aloud at this. "But I should make a poor squaw. I fear you would have many quarrels with your dinner. Besides, my father would not let me marry you. I like you, and you have been very good to me, but I had no idea we had gotten so far as this. Don't you think you Western men cover the ground a little too fast?"

Ermine drew back. "Why did you kiss me?"

"I didn't," she snapped. Her manner grew cold and strange to him. He had never seen this mood before. It chilled him not a little, and he sat down again in the chair. His assault had been repulsed. They were now looking straight into each other's eyes. Fear had departed from Ermine's and all graciousness from hers. Divested of their seductive flashes, he saw the eyes of his photograph, and slowly reaching into the bosom of his shirt, drew out the buckskin bag and undid it. Turning to the straining light, he gazed a moment, and then said, "It is you!"

"I!--what is I?"

"Yes! it is you!" and he handed the much-soiled photograph labelled "Bogardus" to her.

She regarded it. "Why, how on earth did you come by this, Mr. John Ermine?"

"Sak-a-war-te sent it to me in the night, and he made it talk to me and he made me swear that I would seek the woman until I found her. Then she would be my wife. I have found you--I do not know--my head is burning--"

She scanned the photograph, and said in an undertone: "Taken last year in New York, and for him; yet you have it away out here in the middle of this enormous desert. He surely would not give it away to you. I do not understand." And she questioned him sharply as she returned the card.

"Who is this Sak-a-war-te?"

"He is God," said the scout.

"Oh!" she started up. The little miss had never heard God connected with affairs of this sort. An active fear of the fire which burned this extraordinary man's head began to oppress her.

"It is very strange. What has your god got to do with me,--with my--oh, you are joking, Mr. Ermine," she again appealed, a shadow of her old smile appearing.

"No, no; I am not joking. I have found you. I must believe what the spirits say to me when they take my mind from me and give it to you," returned the excited man.

"But really--I did not mean to take your mind. I haven't it anywhere about me. You have dreamed all this."

"Yes; it may be only a dream, Miss Searles, but make it come true; please make it all come true. I should like to live such a dream."

"Oh, my good man, I cannot make the dreams of casual people come true, not such serious dreams as yours."

"You say you would have to live in the corral with mules. Is that because I have so little money?"

"No, it is not money. I do not know how much you have."

"I have often taken enough gold out of the ground in a few days to last me a year."

"Yes, yes, but that is not the only thing necessary."

"What is necessary, then? Tell me what you want."

"There would have to be a great deal of love, you know. That is why any one marries. I have been flattered by the attentions of many cavaliers like yourself, Mr. Ermine, but I could not marry any one of them unless I loved him."

"And then you do not love me," this in a low, far-away voice, lopping each word off as though with an axe.

"No, I do not. I have given you no reason to think I did. I like you, and I am sorry for you, now that I know in what way you regard me. Sit down again and let me tell you." She crouched herself on the edge of her chair, and he sat in his, revolving his big hat in both hands between his knees. He was composed, and she vaguely felt that she owed him a return for his generous acts of the past. She had the light touch of mature civilization and did not desire her darts to be deadly. Now that one had laid this simple nature low, she felt a womanly impulse to nurse the wound.

"Some terrible mistake has been made. Believe me, I am truly sorry that our relationship has not been rightly understood." Here she paused a moment to take a long breath and observe the effect of her words on the one who had so easily lost his head. "No, I simply admired you, Mr. Ermine, as I do many of the brave men about here. I was not thinking of marrying any one. As for living in the mule corral, I was only joking about that. There might be worse places. I should dearly love a gold mine, but don't you understand there would have to be something else--I should have to give you something before we thought of marrying."

"I see it; it all comes to me now," he labored. "You would have to give me something, and you won't give me yourself. Then give me back my mind--give me the peace which I always had until I saw you. Can you do that, Miss Searles? Can you make John Ermine what he was before the steamboat came here, and let him mount his pony and go away?"

It was all so strange, this quiet appeal, that she passed her hand across her forehead in despair.

"If you will not make my dreams come true; if you will not say the things which the photograph does; if you will not do what God intends,--then I must take my body away from here and leave my shadow, my mind, and my heart to be kicked about among the wagons and the dogs. And I know now that you will soon forget me. Then I will be John Ermine, riding among the hills, empty as an old buffalo carcass, moving without life, giving no thought to the sunshine, not feeling the wind nor caring how the birds fly or the animals run. If you will not marry me--"

"Stop, please stop. I cannot stand this sort of thing, my dear Mr. Ermine. There are other young women besides myself. Go about the world, back in the States; you will find whole oceans of them, and without flattery, I feel you will soon find your mind again."

"You have my mind. You have all the mind I ever had." And his voice dropped until she could distinguish only wild gutturals. He was talking to himself in the Indian language.

Springing up quickly, she flew into the house, out through it to the rear steps, where she fell upon the neck of Mary, the cook, to the utter consternation of a soldier, who, to all appearances, was there with a similar ambition so to do. This latter worthy flung himself out into the darkness. The cook held Katherine, expecting the entire Sioux tribe to come pouring through the front door on the instant, and at this belated interval Mrs. Searles entered her own porch.

"Why, Mr. Ermine, where is Katherine, and where is the Major? Why, you are all alone!" And she came up standing.

"Yes, I am all alone," said the scout, quietly, rising from the chair and putting on his sombrero. Before she could comprehend, he was gone.