The Watchers

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2. On The Plains



There is no place in the world which affords more cheerful solitude than the prairie. One may be miles and miles away from human habitation and yet there is an exhilaration in the very sunlight, in the long nodding grass, in the dusty eddies of the breeze which is never actually still on the plains. It is the suggestion of freedom in a great boundless space. It grips the heart, and one thanks God for life. This effect is not only with the prairie novice. It lasts for all time with those who once sniff the scent of its delicious breath.

Dakota and the more southern Nebraska are not the finest examples of the American plains, but they will do. What is better they will make one ask for more, and that is an excellent sign.

It is curious to gaze out over this wonderful virgin grass-land and seek for signs of other human beings. Not a speck in view, except perchance a grazing steer or horse. Not a movement but the eddying whirls of dust, and the nodding of the bowing grass heads as they bend to the gentle pressure of the lightest of zephyrs. And yet no doubt there are human beings about; aye, even within half a mile. For flat as those plains may seem they are really great billows rolling away on every hand into the dim distance, hiding men and cattle and houses in their vast, open troughs.

A little party of six had just appeared over the brow of a rising, which was the last great wave toppling monstrously down toward that great expanse of the shallow valley, in the midst of which flows the Missouri. This tiny party, so meagre and insufficient-looking as they faced the sun-bound plains, had just left the river route to strike in a more westerly direction. As they topped the rise a great, wholesome love for the wide world about them welled up in the heart of the woman who was riding in the wagon, and found vent in a low, thrilling exclamation.

"Wonderful!" Then louder and with eyes sparkling: "Beautiful!"

A child of about eleven summers, with fair curling ringlets flowing loosely beneath a wide, flat sun-hat, whose wide-open violet eyes stared a little awe-struck at the vast world which greeted them, nestled closer to the woman's side on the seat of the jolting wagon without comment, but with a sharp little intake of breath. She had no words to add to her mother's.

At that moment one of three men riding ahead detached himself from the others and dropped back to the wagon, to speak to the woman and child. It was easy to understand the relationship between them by the affectionate smile that greeted him He was a tall man and much tanned by a life spent largely in military camps in hot countries. He had the well-set-up figure of a fighting soldier.

"Well, dearie," he said cheerfully to his wife, "how do you like the prairie?"

The woman nodded.

"I'm so glad we came on by road, Landor. The hotel people were quite bothersome about the restlessness of the Indians. I suppose that is a bogey they thrust before all strangers. I am glad you did not change your mind."

The man understood his wife's strong character, and her reply made him feel as though his responsibilities had been suddenly increased. He looked at his companions riding in scout fashion in front. They were pointing at something on the horizon, and he followed the direction indicated.

At last he looked round and encountered the gaze of his wife's gray eyes.

"I thought you would be, Al," he said quietly. "You see the Indians are always restless. Besides, if I----"

"Yes."

The man laughed happily.

"No not yet, dear. My secret must remain a little longer. You are a wonder, Al. You have known that I have a secret for nearly two months, and still you refrain from questioning me."

Alice shook her head, and stooped to readjust their daughter's hat. Her action hid the smile at her husband's simplicity. A good wife learns many things without questioning.

"You see I know I shall be told when it becomes expedient. How would you like to make hay in these lovely open fields, Marjorie?" she asked the violet-eyed child, gazing so steadfastly at this new world about her.

But Marjorie shook her head. She was a little overpowered.

"It's so big, mamma," she murmured, doubtfully.

At that moment one of the two horsemen ahead beckoned to the man a little peremptorily, and he rode off. Then the child turned to her mother.

"What did you mean about the Indians, mamma?"

But the mother did not answer; she was watching her husband, who had just joined the others, and she saw that all three were watching something that looked like smoke on the northwestern horizon.

"Don't Indians eat people, mamma?" asked the child presently.

Her mother laughed shortly, and answered, "No." The answer came a little more sharply than she usually spoke. Suddenly she leant forward and touched the driver on the shoulder. He turned round instantly.

"What is that smoke on the horizon, Jim?" she asked.

The man looked into her steady gray eyes. Then he glanced down at the beautiful child at her side, and, in a moment, his gaze came back to the handsome dark face of the mother; but instantly he turned back to the horses.

"Don't know," he threw back brusquely over his shoulder.

And the woman who learned so much without asking questions knew that he lied.

The vehicle creaked on. The steady jog of the horses kept the neck-yoke rattling in the harness with a sound that was almost musical. The sun was very hot, and the sweat was caked in white streaks all over the hard-working animals' flanks. Mother and child sat on in silence. Those two pairs of lovely eyes were looking out ahead. The child interested, and the mother thinking hard and swiftly. Curiously that smoke on the horizon had set her thinking of her husband and child, but mostly of the child. The driver chirruped at his horses as he had done from the start. He munched his tobacco, and seemed quite at his ease. Only every now and then his keen eyes lifted to the smoke. He was an old prairie hand.

The horsemen on ahead had halted where a higher billow of grass-land than usual had left a sharp, deep hollow. A hundred yards to the right of the trail there was a small clump of undergrowth. The men had dismounted. When the wagon came up the husband stepped to its side.

"We are going to camp here, Alice," he said quietly. "There is good water close by. We can spare the time; we have come along well."

Alice glanced at the faces of the others while he was speaking. One of the men was a long-haired prairie scout; his keen black eyes were intent upon her face. The other was a military "batman," a blue-eyed Yorkshireman. His eyes were very bright--unusually bright. The teamster was placidly looking round his horses.

"Very well," she answered, and passed little Marjorie out into her father's arms. Then she sprang lightly to the ground.

Then the teamster drove the horses away into the brush, and the wagon was hidden from view. The scout and the batman pitched two "A" tents, and the mother noticed that they were so placed as to be utterly hidden in the thick foliage. The horses were off-saddled, and, contrary to custom, were tethered further still from the road, down by the water.

Little Marjorie went off with the men who were securing the horses, and Alice stood watching her husband's movements. She was a beautiful woman of that strong, dark Celtic type, so common in Ireland. Her strong supple figure was displayed to perfection in a simple tweed suit with a jacket of the Norfolk pattern. She stood for some moments watching with deep contemplative eyes. Then she abruptly turned away.

"I will gather some fire-wood," she said deliberately to her husband.

He looked up from his work and their eyes met.

"Don't bother," he said; "we will use the oil stove."

And without further explanation the camp was arranged. There was no bustle or excitement. Yet each member of that little party, with the exception of the child, knew that the camp had been made in emergency--grave emergency.

A hearty meal was partaken of. Then the man and the scout disappeared. The others occupied themselves around the camp. The afternoon wore on. At tea the scout and his companion reappeared. The wife still asked no verbal questions. Her eyes told her all she wished to know.

During the evening meal little Marjorie made a discovery.

"Mamma," she exclaimed, "you've got a belt on like daddy's. What are these?" And she fingered a revolver holster, of which her mother's belt supported two.

It was the rough, long-haired scout who saved the woman a deliberate falsehood.

"Guess them's playthings," he said, with a sombre laugh. "B't don't figger they're fer kiddies to monkey with."

After supper the man and the scout again disappeared. Three hours later the moon was high in the starlit sky. It was a glorious summer moon, and the whole country was bright with its silvery light.

Two men were lying upon their stomachs conning the northwestern sky-line.

The scout at last spoke in his slow drawling way.

"Guess it's played out, Colonel," he said. "We're up agin it."

It didn't seem clear to what he referred, but the other understood him.

"Yes, they're working this way," he replied. "See, something has been fired away to the right front. They may be working round that way and will miss us here. What are our chances?"

"Nix," responded the scout decidedly. "Them critturs hev got to git around this way. They're on a line that'll strike Fort Randall, wi' a heap more military 'n they'll notion. They'll strike south an' sweep round sheer through to Wyoming. We're dead in their line."

"Then we'd best get back and prepare. Mrs. Raynor and Marjorie will have turned in; we can do it quietly."

"Yup."

They rose and returned to camp.

Colonel Raynor had intended to avoid his wife's tent. But Alice was waiting for him on the outskirts of the camp. The scout saw her and discreetly passed on, and husband and wife were left together.

"Well?"

The woman's tone was quite steady. She was used to a soldier's life. Besides, she understood the man's responsibility and wished to help him. And Landor Raynor, looking into the gray eyes that were to him the gates of the heart of purest womanhood, could not resort to subterfuge.

"They will be on us before morning, dearest," he said, and it was only by the greatest effort he could check a tide of self-accusation. But the woman understood and quickly interposed.

"I feared so, Landor. Are you ready? I mean for the fight?"

"We are preparing. I thought of sending you and little Marjorie south with Jim, on saddle horses, but----"

"No. I would not go. I am what you men call 'useful with a gun.'" She laughed shortly.

There was a silence between them for some moments. And in that silence a faint and distant sound came to them. It was like the sound of droning machinery, only very faint.

The wife broke the silence. "Landor, we are old campaigners, you and I."

"Yes, Al."

The woman sighed ever so lightly.

"The excitement of the foreknowledge of victory is not in me to-night. Everything seems--so ordinary."

"Yes."

"When the moment comes, Landor, I should not like to be taken prisoner."

"Nor shall you be, Al. There are four good fighting men with you. All old campaigners like--you."

"Yes. I wasn't thinking of that." The gray eyes looked away. The man shifted uneasily.

There was a prolonged silence. Each was thinking over old scenes in old campaigns.

"I don't think I am afraid of much," the woman said slowly, at last. "Certainly not of death."

"Don't talk like that, Al." The man's arm linked itself through his wife's. The woman smiled wistfully up into the strong face bending over her.

"I was thinking, dearest, if death faced us, little Marjorie and me, in any form, we should not like it at the hands of an Indian. We should both prefer it from some one we know and--love."

Another silence followed, and the sound of machinery was nearer and louder. The man stooped down and kissed the upturned face, and looked long into the beautiful gray depths he loved so well.

"It shall be as you wish, Al--as a last resource. I will go and kiss Marjorie. It is time we were doing."

He had spoken so quietly, so calmly. But in his soldier's heart he knew that his promise would be carried out to the letter--as a last resource. He left the woman, the old campaigner, examining the revolvers which looked like cannons in her small white hands.




One brief hour has passed. The peace of that lonely little trail-side camp has gone. War, a thousand times more fierce than the war of civilized nations, is raging round it in the light of the summer moon. The dead bodies of three white men are lying within a few yards of the tent which belongs to the ill-fated colonel and his wife. A horde of shouting, shrieking savages encircle that little white canopy and its two remaining defenders. Every bush is alive with hideous painted faces waiting for the last order to rush the camp. Their task has been less easy than they supposed. For the defenders were all "old hands." And every shot from the repeating rifles has told. But now it is different. There are only two defenders left. A man of invincible courage--and a woman; and behind them, a little, awe-struck child in the doorway of the tent.

The echoing war-whoop sounds the final advance, and the revolvers of those two desperate defenders crack and crack again. The woman's ammunition is done. The man's is nearly so. He turns, and she turns to meet him. There is one swift embrace.

"Now!" she says in a low, soft voice.

There is an ominous crack of a revolver, but it is not fired in the direction of the Indians whom the man sees are within a few yards of him. He sees the woman fall, and turns swiftly to the tent door. The child instinctively turns and runs inside. The man's gun is raised with inexorable purpose. His shot rings out. The child screams; and the man crashes to the earth with his head cleft by a hatchet from behind.