25. In Which The Undercurrent Belies The Superficial Calm
THE snow is gone, and the earth is passing through a process of airing. The sun licks up the moisture like some creature possessed of an unquenchable thirst. Wherever it is sufficiently dry the settlers are already at work seeding. Some are even breaking virgin soil, or turning over old ploughing. There is an atmosphere of leisurely industry about the plains. Even in these unsettled regions work goes forward with precision. The farmer's life is one of routine with which he permits nothing to interfere. He lives by the fruits of the earth which ripen in due season. If fortune favors him he reaps the harvest. Whatever his lot he must accept it. The elements rule his life. The Indians may or may not disorganize the process.
The folk on White River Farm are in no way behind their neighbors. Seth's returning strength permits him to take his share in the work, and thus Rube finds his burden lightened. But only partially, for Seth has much else to do, or seems to have, for he has many comings and goings which take up time.
Mrs. Rickards is still staying on at the farm. She thoroughly enjoys this new, simple life. Besides, in the brief fortnight which has elapsed since her coming, she has learnt something of the true worth, the wonderful kindliness and honesty of these frontier-folk.
Even Seth, whom at first she was less certain about, she has learned to look upon with favor. His silent, direct fashion of going through his daily life has given her an inkling of qualities, which, if not altogether companionable, show a manliness she has not always been accustomed to.
Her change of opinion found vent one night at bedtime. Rosebud listened to the worldly-wise woman's remarks with a glow of pleasure and pride.
"Seth is a queer fellow, Rosie, so darkly reticent and all that," she said, with a thoughtful smile. "Do you know I sometimes think if I were in great danger--personal danger, you know--he's the sort of man I'd like to have about. He gives me the impression of a great reserve of strength. He is what one might--well, what you would call a 'man.'"
Rosebud added her word without the least hesitation.
"He's more than that, auntie; he's the bravest and best man in the world."
"Just so, my dear; and in consequence you don't want to return to England," Mrs. Rickards said slyly.
Rosebud encountered the glance which accompanied the words. She shook her head with a little despairing gesture.
"But he loves me only as a sort of daughter."
"Does he, my dear?"
Mrs. Rickards' tone was quite incredulous; she was at home in matters of love and marriage.
The object of all this thought went about blissfully unconscious of the heart stirrings he was causing. Every moment of his life was full--full to the brim and even overflowing. There was not a settler in the district whom he had not visited during the fortnight. And his business was with the men alone.
The result of his visits would have been visible to the eye of only the most experienced. Work went on the same as before, but there were many half hours which might have been spent in well-earned idleness now devoted by the men to a quiet, undemonstrative overhauling of their armory.
As it was at these outlying farms so it was at White River. In the short twilight of evening Rube and Seth would wander round their buildings and the stockade, noting this defect, suggesting this alteration, or that repair. All their ideas were based on the single thought of emergency. Large supplies of cord-wood were brought in and stacked on the inner side of the stockade, thus adding to its powers of resistance. Every now and then Ma would receive casually dropped hints on the subject of her storeroom. A large supply of ammunition arrived from Beacon Crossing. Many cases of tinned provisions came along, and Ma, wondering, took them in without question or comment at the time. Later in the day when she happened to find Seth alone she told him of them, adopting a casual tone, the tone which these people invariably assumed when the signs of the times wore their most significant aspect.
"There was a heap of canned truck come from the Crossing, Seth," she said. "I laid it down in the cellars. Maybe you sent it along?"
And Seth replied--
"Why, yes, Ma. I figgered we'd like a change from fresh meat. You see I happened along to Beacon Crossing, an' I guessed I'd save a journey later." "I see."
Ma's bright old eyes read all there was underlying her boy's words, and she, like the rest, continued steadily on with her work.
So the days crept slowly by. Now the snow and ice were gone, and the tawny hue of the prairie was tinged with that perfect emerald of budding spring. The woodlands of the river and the Reservation had lost their barren blackness. The earth was opening its eyes and stretching itself after its months of heavy slumber. Life was in the very air of the plains. The whole world seemed to be bursting with renewed life.
Seth was now restored to something like his old self. His vigor was a thing to marvel at. His regular day's work was only a tithe of what he did. That which went on after the rest of the household had retired to rest was known to only two others. Rube possessed the younger man's confidence, and Jimmy Parker was in constant communication with him. Seth and the latter worked hand in hand for the common welfare, but they were silent. Each knew the character of the dangers which ever surrounded them. Each knew that an absolute silence and apparent indifference were the only means of learning the plans, the meaning of the furtive unrest of the warlike Sioux. All that they learned was carefully stored and docketed for future reference.
Parker's responsibility was official. Seth's was voluntary and humanitarian. Now he had a double incentive. Rosebud was in danger. He knew that he alone stood between her and the treacherous machinations of Nevil Steyne, and the lawless passion of an unscrupulous savage. He dared not spare himself. He must know of every movement on the Reservation. He quite understood the men he was dealing with. He knew the motive of each. All he hoped was that he might prove himself just a shade cleverer, a shade quicker in emergency when the time came for him to act.
It was impossible, however, that Seth should leave the house night after night and no member of the household be the wiser. Oddly enough it was Mrs. Rickards' maid who discovered his movements. She, with a discretion which a confidential servant may always be expected to possess, whispered her discovery to her mistress, and her mistress was not slow in drawing Rosebud's attention. As they were retiring one night she told the girl of her maid's discovery.
"Janet tells me that Mr. Seth goes out every night and doesn't return till two or three in the morning, Rosie," she said abruptly, as she was preparing for bed. "You know the girl sleeps over the kitchen, and some nights ago she saw him ride off from the barn in the moonlight. Last night she was awake when he got back. It was daylight. I wonder where he goes?"
Rosebud responded in a matter-of-fact tone, but with a quick look at her friend.
Mrs. Rickards wondered and speculated on, but Rosebud's manner gave her no encouragement, and she was fain to let the matter drop. There was no malice in her remarks, but a very profound curiosity.
Her announcement had its effect.
The next night Rosebud did not go to bed after retiring to their room. She made no explanation, merely telling her aunt that she was not going to bed yet. And Mrs. Rickards nodded a comprehensive smile at her.
The girl waited a reasonable time till she thought the others were asleep, then she crept softly down-stairs. She went into the kitchen, but it was dark and empty. The parlor was also in darkness, except for the moonlight pouring in through the window. But as she stood in the doorway, peering closely into the remoter corners, she felt a cool draught playing upon her face. Then she saw that the door opening on the verandah was open.
She walked across the room, and, looking out on the moonlit scene, was promptly greeted by a low growl from General. The next moment she stepped out, and beheld Seth's tall figure leaning against one of the great gate-posts of the stockade, while General came over to her and rubbed his keen nose against her skirts.
Just for a moment she hesitated. It suddenly occurred to her that her action might be construed into spying, and she was possessed by a sense of shame at the bare thought. She knew that she was not spying in the baser sense of the word. She had no doubts of Seth. Instinct told her why he was out. She had come to find out the facts, but not by spying. She meant to question him.
She felt her heart thumping in her chest as she stepped quickly across the verandah. She was nervous, and a strange feeling of shyness made her long to turn back before the man became aware of her presence. But she controlled the impulse, and, though feeling herself flush in the cool air of the night, walked bravely on.
She believed she was unobserved. Her slippers gave out no sound, but as she came within a few yards of the still figure, the man's voice greeted her.
"Thought you was abed, Rosie."
The girl started at the sound. Seth had not moved, had not even turned his head. Then she answered.
"How did you know I was here?" she said quickly.
"Guess I heard General talkin' to you."
She was at his side now.
"But you never looked round?"
"Ef it was Rube, I'd have heard his feet. Ma ain't wanderin' around o' nights. An' I guess your auntie ain't bustin' fer a moonlight ramble. It didn't need a heap o' figgerin'."
Rosebud had no answer ready. The argument was so simple.
A brief silence fell, while both looked out across the moonlit plains at the dark line of distant woods. There was a slight glow in the sky in two different directions. One was away over the Pine Ridge Reservation, the other was nearer at hand, but on the far side of the Rosebud Reservation. The girl saw these things and they held her silent. Her breathing came quickly. There was a sensation of excitement running through her body. She knew these lights were what Seth was staring at.
The man stirred at last.
"Guess you'd best git back to bed, Rosie," he said. "I'm goin' to saddle up my plug. I'm goin' to ride some."
"Where are you going?" The girl's question came with a little nervous energy.
The man turned upon her gravely.
"I'm meetin' Parker to-night," he said briefly.
"What for?" The violet eyes held the other's with their steady gaze. The pretty, irregular face was set and determined.
Seth moved. Then he turned away to glance at the lurid reflection in the sky. Presently his eyes came back to her face.
"It's them," he said, indicating the reflected fires.
"And what are they?" Rosebud's voice was quietly commanding. The irresponsible girl had gone from the woman talking now.
"Sun-dances. They're doin' it at night to cover their tracks. The Injuns are gettin' wise."
There was no avoiding the sharp, direct questioning.
"We're goin' to git it, and when it comes it'll be--sudden. Sudden an' bad. It's both Reservations. All of 'em."
Rosebud was silent. Her wide open eyes were on the lights, but her thoughts were on other things,--so many other things, that her head whirled. At last she spoke again, in a tense, nervous manner.
"Tell me about it. Tell me all."
Seth shook his head.
"Ther' ain't a deal."
"See you, Rosie, ef I go out o' here presently, will you jest close these gates an' fix 'em? An' will you be up to open 'em for me?"
"Yes. But tell me."
Seth gazed at the horizon again.
"As I said, ther' ain't much," he began presently. "This has been goin' on fer days. Ther's Injuns out most every night, an' they are lyin' this side o' the fort. They're all about it, an' them soldier-fellers ain't wise to it. What's more we darsen't to put 'em wise. They're li'ble to butt right in, an' then ther' won't be any stoppin' them pesky redskins. Y' see ther's only a handful at the fort, an' the Injuns could eat 'em."
"Yes, you always said it was a mistake to bluff with soldiers so near the Reservation. I suppose the Indians resent their presence. Is that it?"
"There's another reason?"
"Can't rightly say."
Rosebud knew that the man was prevaricating.
She stood lost in thought for some moments. And as she thought a sudden light came to her. She drew closer to her companion and laid one hand on his arm.
"I think I see, Seth," she said, and then became silent.
The man moved, and his action was almost a rebuff. That touch had stirred him. The gentle pressure of her hand sent the blood coursing through his veins, and he restrained the hot, passionate words that sprang to his lips only with a great effort. The girl accepted his movement as a rebuff and shrank away. But she spoke vehemently.
"If I'd only thought--oh, if I'd only thought! I should have known. All that has gone before should have told me. It is my coming back that has precipitated matters." Her voice had sunk to a low tone of humility and self-accusation. "And, Seth, now I understand why you were shot. It was Little Black Fox. And I, fool that I was, dared to show myself on the Reservation. And he saw me. I might have known, I might have known."
There was a piteous ring in her low tones. Seth stirred again, but she went on desperately.
"Yes, I see it all. A descent will be made upon us, upon this farm. You will be done to death for me. Ma and Pa, and auntie and--and you."
She paused, but went on again at once.
"Yes, and I see further now. I see what you have already grasped. They have these scouts out around the fort to watch. When it comes they mean to cut the soldiers off. There will be no help for us. Only--only this stockade. Oh, Seth, how can you forgive me! You and Pa have foreseen all this trouble. And you have prepared for it all you can. Is there no help? Can I do nothing to atone for what I have done? You stand there without a word of blame for me. You never blame me--any of you. I wish I were dead! Seth, why don't you kill me?"
But as the girl's hysterical outburst reached its culminating point, Seth regained perfect mastery of himself. He noted the rush of tears which followed her words with a pang of infinite pity, but he told himself that he dare not attempt to comfort her. Instead, his calm voice, with its wonderful power of reassurance, fell upon the stillness of the night.
"Little gal, things are jest as they must be. The blame is on me fer not bein' quicker an' handier wi' my gun when I had the chance. But, howsum, Parker's a hefty man. He ken think an' act quick. We're ready, far as we ken be."
Rosebud dried her tears. Never in her life had Seth appeared to her as he appeared now. The steady, unruffled purpose of the man exalted him in her eyes to an impossible position. Somehow the feelings he roused in her lifted her out of her womanly weakness. She, too, was capable of great, unswerving devotion, but she did not realize it. She only felt that she, too, must bear her part in whatever fortune had in store for them. She would range herself beside this man and share in his success or failure. If it were to be failure she was ready to die at his side. If it were success--a great exultation swept over her at the thought. She went no further. Success at his side would be worth--everything.
"Tell me what I can do--anything!" she cried. Her tone was low, but it rang with a note the man had never heard in it before. There was a joy in it that startled him. "Seth, I believe--I know--I want to--to fight. My blood is running like fire. Tell me what I am to do."
It was a few moments before Seth answered her. He was thinking hard. He knew she could do much. But he was debating with himself. A great pride was his as he contemplated the small face with its wonderful eyes out of which looked such steadfast courage. He, too, thrilled at the thought of fighting at her side, but he tried to tell himself that he had no right to ask anything of her. Perhaps Rosebud saw the drift of his thoughts in his face, for she gave him no chance of denial.
"Yes, the gates. That's all right. I understand. Now, what else? Can't I reconnoitre, or--or something in the meantime?"
Her enthusiasm carried the day.
"No, I guess not. But----"
"See, Rosie, we want time. I kind o' think it's to-morrow. Parker thinks so too. So does Hargreaves. We may be wrong. But--see right here, I'm due back here by two o'clock sure. If I'm not here by ten minutes after ther's this you ken do. Go straight back o' the barn 'bout a hundred paces; on the hill are two bunches of stuff piled up, one's wood, t'other's dried grass an' stuff. You go right out an' kindle 'em both. They're signals to the settlers around. Guess ther's eyes watchin' for 'em at every farm. When you see 'em burnin' steady, git right back and rouse Rube an' Ma. I'll git back later--sure. An' ther'll be others with me."
"Yes. Anything more?"
"Nope. I 'lows I'll saddle up."
They walked back to the barn in silence. Seth saddled his horse and brought him out. Together they walked to the gate of the stockade. They still remained silent. At the gate the man mounted. Rosebud, very frail looking in the moonlight, stood beside him smoothing the horse's silky neck. Her face was anxious but determined. Suddenly she looked up. Her great eyes were full of appeal. There was no wavering in her gaze, nothing but sincerity and appeal.
"Seth, dear," she said in a steady voice, "be careful of yourself--for my sake." Then, lowering her gaze, and turning to the distant reflection of the fires, "Remember, we all depend on you."
"I'll remember, Rosie, gal," the man replied, with a tender inflection he could not altogether repress. "So long."
The horse moved away with General at its heels.
For a long time Rosebud stood where the parting had left her. Now that Seth had gone she was a prey to every womanly anxiety. And her anxiety was solely for him. None of those peacefully slumbering in the house entered into her thoughts. Her care was for this one man; his image filled her heart. At that moment hers was the selfishness of a maiden's first great love. Even in her anxiety her thoughts were not unhappy ones.
At last she moved away, and with the action came a desire to do. Unknown to her the spirit of her dead father and mother roused within her. She was a woman, gentle, loving, but strong with an invincible courage which had been handed down to her from those two brave souls of whom she had no recollection. Time would prove if the tragedy of the parents should fall upon the child.
Quietly she stole up-stairs to her bedroom. Her cousin was still sleeping. She opened a chest of drawers and drew out an old leather belt filled with ammunition, and bearing two holsters containing a pair of revolvers. These had been a present from Seth in the old days. She loaded both weapons, and then secured them about her waist. Then she closed the drawer, and crept noiselessly down-stairs again.
She made her way out into the moonlight. Passing out of the stockade she located the exact position of the beacon-fires. The forethought in their arrangement pleased her. She understood that the wood-fire was for night, and the grass and dung for day. The smoke of the latter would be easily detected in the brightest sunlight. She came back and barred the gates, and sat out on the verandah with a small metal clock beside her. Thus her vigil began.
The time crept by. Twelve, one, two o'clock. Seth had not returned. She gave him the exact ten minutes' grace. Then, her face pale and a little drawn by the unaccustomed strain, she went out and lit the beacons. She obeyed implicitly. There was no haste, no fear. Her heart was thumping hard in her bosom as she came and went, but it was not with fear.
Finally she roused Rube and Ma. Returning to the verandah she was in time to answer a sharp summons at the gates. To her dismay she discovered that Seth had not returned. The Agent and Mr. Hargreaves had brought their womenfolk. The minister greeted the girl with a quiet announcement which lost nothing of its significance by the easy manner in which it was made.
"They're out, Rosie," he said. And a moment later the gates were closed behind the party.