It is nearly midday, and the Indians round the blazing woods on the southern spur of the Black Hills are in full retreat. Another desperate battle, such as crowd the unwritten history of the United States, has been fought and won. The history of the frontiersman's life would fill a record which any soldier might envy. It is to the devotion of such men that colonial empires owe their being, for without their aid, no military force could bring peace and prosperity to a land. The power of the sword may conquer and hold, but there its mission ends. It is left to the frontiersman to do the rest.
The battle-field is strewn with dead and dying; but there are no white faces staring blankly up at the heavens, only the painted, seared features of the red man. Their opponents are under cover. If they have any dead or dying they are with the living. These men fight in the manner of the Indian, but with a superior intelligence.
But though the white men have won the battle their end is defeated. For the blazing woods have swept across the homestead of "old man" Jason, for years a landmark in the country, and now it is no more. A mere charred skeleton remains; smoking, smouldering, a witness to the white man's daring in a savage country.
The blazing woods are approachable only on the windward side, and even here the heat is blistering. It is still impossible to reach the ruins of the homestead, for the wake of the fire is like a superheated oven. And so the men who came to succor have done the only thing left for them. They have fought and driven off the horde of Indians, who first sacked the ranch and then fired it. But the inmates; and amongst them four women. What of them? These rough plainsmen asked themselves this question as they approached the conflagration; then they shut their teeth hard and meted out a terrible chastisement before pushing their inquiries further. It was the only way.
A narrow river skirts the foot of the hills, cutting the homestead off from the plains. And along its bank, on the prairie side, is a scattered brush such as is to be found adjacent to most woods. The fire has left it untouched except that the foliage is much scorched, and it is here that the victors of an unrecorded battle lie hidden in the cover. Though the enemy is in full retreat, and the rearmost horsemen are fast diminishing against the horizon, not a man has left his shelter. They are men well learned in the craft of the Indians.
Dan Somers and Seth are sharing the same cover. The sheriff is watching the last of the braves as they desperately hasten out of range. At last he moves and starts to rise from his prone position. But Seth's strong hand checks him and pulls him down again.
"Not yet," he said.
But the sheriff yielded nevertheless. In spite of his fledgling twenty-two years, Seth was an experienced Indian fighter, and Dan Somers knew it; no one better. Seth's father and mother had paid the life penalty seventeen years ago at the hands of the Cheyennes. It was jokingly said that Seth was a white Indian. By which those who said it meant well but put it badly. He certainly had remarkable native instincts.
"This heat is hellish!" Somers protested presently, as Seth remained silent, gazing hard at a rather large bluff on the river bank, some three hundred yards ahead. Then he added bitterly, "But it ain't no use. We're too late. The fire's finished everything. Maybe we'll find their bodies. I guess their scalps are elsewhere."
Seth turned. He began to move out of his cover in Indian fashion, wriggling through the grass like some great lizard.
"I'll be back in a whiles," he said, as he went. "Stay right here."
He was back in a few minutes. No Indian could have been more silent in his movements.
"Well?" questioned the sheriff.
Seth smiled in his own gradual manner. "We're going to draw 'em, I guess," he said. "Fill up."
And the two men recharged the magazines of their Winchesters.
Presently Seth pointed silently at the big bluff on the river bank. The next moment he had fired into it, and his shot was followed at once by a perfect hail of lead from the rest of the hidden white men. The object of his recent going was demonstrated.
For nearly two minutes the fusilade continued, then Seth's words were proved. There was a rush and scrambling and breaking of brush. Thirty mounted braves dashed out of the hiding and charged the white men's cover. It was only to face a decimating fire. Half the number were unhorsed, and the riderless ponies fled in panic in the direction of those who had gone before.
But while others headed these howling, painted fiends Seth's rifle remained silent. He knew that this wild rush was part of a deliberate plan, and he waited for the further development. It came. His gun leapt to his shoulder as a horse and rider darted out of the brush. The man made eastward, attempting escape under cover of his staunch warriors' desperate feint. Seth had him marked down. He was the man of all whom he had looked for. But the aim had to be careful, for he was carrying a something that looked like woman's clothes in his arms, and, besides, this man must not go free. Seth was very deliberate at all times; now he was particularly so. And when the puff of smoke passed from the muzzle of his rifle it was to be seen that the would-be fugitive had fallen, and his horse had gone on riderless.
Now the few remaining braves broke and fled, but there was no escape for them. They had defeated their own purpose by approaching too close. Not one was left to join the retreating band. It was a desperate slaughter.
The fight was done. Seth left his cover, and, followed by the sheriff, went across to where the former's victim had fallen.
"Good," exclaimed Somers, as they came up. "It is Big Wolf---- What?" He broke off and dropped to his knees.
But Seth was before him. The latter had dragged the body of the great chief to one side, and revealed, to the sheriff's astonished eyes, the dainty clothing, and what looked like the dead form of a white girl child. They both held the same thought, but Somers was the first to put it into words.
"Tain't Jason's. They're all grown up," he said.
Seth was looking down at the child's beautiful pale face. His eyes took in the thick, fair ringlets of flowing hair all matted with blood. He noted even the texture of the clothes. And, suddenly stooping, he gathered her into his arms.
"She's mine now," he said. Then his thoughtful, dark eyes took on their slow smile again. "And she ain't dead, though pretty nigh, I'm thinking."
"How'd you know?" asked Somers curiously.
"Can't say. I've jest a notion that aways."
The others came up, but not another word passed Seth's lips. He walked off in the direction of the track where the engine was standing at the head of its trucks. And by the time he reached his destination he was quite weighted down, for this prize of his was no infant but a girl of some years. He laid her tenderly in the cab of the engine, and quickly discovered a nasty scalp wound on the back of her head. Just for a moment he conceived it to be the result of his own shot, then he realized that the injury was not of such recent infliction. Nevertheless it was the work of a bullet; which discovery brought forth a flow of scathing invective upon the head of the author of the outrage.
With that care which was so characteristic of this thoughtful plainsman, he fetched water from the tank of the locomotive, tore off a large portion of his own flannel shirt, and proceeded to wash the wound as tenderly as might any devoted mother. He was used to a rough treatment of wounds, and, by the time he had bandaged the pretty head, he found that his supply of shirt was nearly exhausted. But this in no way disturbed him.
With great resource he went back to the prairie and tore out great handfuls of the rank grass, and so contrived a comparatively luxurious couch for his foundling on the foot-plate of the engine.
By this time the men were returning from their search for the bodies at the ruins of the ranch. The story was quickly told. The remains had been found, as might have been expected, charred cinders of bone.
There was no more to be done here, and Somers, on his return to the track, sounded the true note of their necessity.
"We must git back. Them durned Injuns 'll make tracks fer Beacon Crossing, or I'm a Dago."
Then he looked into the cab where the still form of the prairie waif lay shaded by a piece of tarpaulin which Seth had found on the engine. He observed the bandage and the grass bed, and he looked at the figure bending to the task of firing.
"What are you goin' to do with her?" he asked.
Seth worked on steadily.
"Guess I'll hand her over to Ma Sampson," he said, without turning.
"Maybe she has folks. Maybe ther's the law."
Seth turned now.
"She's mine now," he cried over his shoulder. Then he viciously aimed a shovelful of coal at the open furnace door.
All his years of frontier life had failed to change a naturally tender heart in Seth. Whatever he might do in the heat of swift-rising passion it had no promptings in his real nature. The life of the plains was his in all its varying moods, but there was an unchanging love for his kind under it all. However, like all such men, he hated to be surprised into a betrayal of these innermost feelings, and this is what had happened. Somers had found the vulnerable point in his armor of reserve, but, like the sensible man he was, he kept his own counsel.
At the saloon in Beacon Crossing the men were less careful. Their curiosity found vent in questionable pleasantries, and they chaffed Seth in a rough, friendly way.
On their arrival Seth handed the still unconscious child over to the wife of the hotel-keeper for an examination of her clothes. He did this at Dan Somers' suggestion, as being the most legal course to pursue, and waited with the sheriff and several others in the bar for the result.
Good news had greeted the fighting party on their return. The troops were already on the way to suppress the sudden and unaccountable Indian rising. Eight hundred of the hard-riding United States cavalry had left the fort on receipt of the message from Beacon Crossing. The hotel-keeper imparted the news with keen appreciation; he had no desire for troublesome times. Plainsmen had a knack of quitting his execrable drink when there was fighting to be done--and Louis Roiheim was an Israelite.
A silence fell upon the bar-room on the appearance of Julie Roiheim. She saw Seth, and beckoned him over to her.
"There are initials on the little one's clothing. M. R.," she said. And Seth nodded.
"Any name?" he asked.
The stout old woman shook her greasy head.
"But she's no ordinary child, Seth. Not by a lot. She belongs East, or my name's not Julie. That child is the girl of some millionaire in Noo York, or Philadelphy. She's got nothing on her but what is fine lawn and real lace!"
"Ah!" murmured the plainsman, without any responsive enthusiasm, while his dark eyes watched the triumphant features of the woman to whom these things were of such consequence. "And has the Doc. got around?"
"He's fixin' her up," Julie Roiheim went on. "Oh, yes, you were right, she's alive, but he can't wake her up. He says if she's to be moved, it had best be at once."
"Good." Just for one brief instant Seth's thoughtful face lit up. He turned to old Louis. "Guess I'll borrow your buckboard," he went on. "I'll need it to take the kiddie out."
The hotel-keeper nodded, and just then Nevil Steyne, who at that moment had entered the bar, and had only gleaned part of the conversation, made his way over to where Seth was standing.
"Who is she?" he asked, fixing his cold blue eyes eagerly on the face of the man he was addressing.
"Don't know," said Seth shortly. Then as an afterthought, "Clothes marked M. R."
The blue eyes lowered before the other's steady gaze.
"Ah," murmured Nevil. Then he, too, paused. "Is she alive?" he asked at last. And there was something in his tone which suggested a dry throat.
"Yes, she is," replied Seth. "And," he said, with unusual expansiveness, "I guess she'll keep right on doing that same."
Seth had again betrayed himself.
Nevil seemed half inclined to say more. But Seth gave him no chance. He had no love for this man. He turned on his heel without excuse and left the hotel to attend to the preparation of the buckboard himself.
On his way home that afternoon, and all the next day, the Indians were in his thoughts only so far as this waif he had picked up was concerned. For the most part he was thinking of the child herself, and those to whom he was taking her. He pictured the delight with which his childless foster-parents would receive her. The bright-faced little woman whom he affectionately called "Ma"; the massive old plainsman, Rube, with his gurgling chuckle, gruff voice and kindly heart. And his thoughts stirred in him an emotion he never would have admitted. He thought of the terrible lot he had saved this child from, for he knew only too well why she had been spared by the ruthless Big Wolf.
All through that long journey his watchfulness never relaxed. He looked to the comfort of his patient although she was still unconscious. He protected her face from the sun, and kept cool cloths upon her forehead, and drove only at a pace which spared the inanimate body unnecessary jolting. And it was all done with an eye upon the Reservations and horizon; with a hearing always acute on the prairie, rendered doubly so now, and with a loaded rifle across his knees.
It was dusk when he drove up to the farm. A certain relief came over him as he observed the peaceful cattle grazing adjacent to the corrals, the smoke rising from the kitchen chimney, and the great figure of Rube smoking reflectively in the kitchen doorway.
He did not stop to unhitch the horses, just hooking them to the corral fence. Then he lifted the child from the buckboard and bore her to the house.
Rube watched him curiously as he came with his burden. There was no greeting between these two. Both were usually silent men, but for different reasons. Conversation was a labor to Rube; a twinkling look of his deep-set eyes, and an expressive grunt generally contented him. Now he removed his pipe from his lips and stared in open-mouthed astonishment at the queer-looking bundle Seth was carrying.
"Gee!" he muttered. And made way for his foster son. Any questions that might have occurred to him were banished from his slow-moving thoughts.
Seth laid his charge upon the kitchen table, and Rube looked at the deathlike face, so icy, yet so beautiful. A great broad smile, not untouched with awe, spread over his bucolic features.
"Where's Ma?" asked Seth.
Rube indicated the ceiling with the stem of his pipe.
"Ma," cried Seth, through the doorway, up the narrow stairs which led to the rooms above. "Come right down. Guess I've kind o' got a present for you."
"That you, Seth?" called out a cheery voice from above.
A moment later a little woman, with gray hair and a face that might have belonged to a woman of thirty, bustled into the room.
"Ah, Seth," she cried affectionately, "you jest set to it to spoil your old mother." Then her eyes fell on the figure on the kitchen table. "La sakes, boy, what's--what's this?" Then as she bent over the unconscious child. "Oh, the pore--pore little beauty!"
Rube turned away with a chuckle. His practical little wife had been astonished out of her wits. And the fact amused him immensely.
"It's a gal, Ma," said Seth. He too was smiling.
"Gracious, boy, guess I've got two eyes in my head!"
There was a long pause. Ma fingered the silken curls. Then she took one of the cold hands in hers and stroked it softly.
"Where--where did you git her?" she asked at last.
"The Injuns. I shot Big Wolf yesterday. They're on the war-path."
"Ah." The bright-eyed woman looked up at this tall foster son of hers.
"War-path--you shot Big Wolf?" cried Rube, now roused to unwonted speech. "Then we'd best git busy."
"It's all right, father," Seth reassured him. "The troops are on the trail."
There was another considerable pause while all eyes were turned on the child. At last Mrs. Sampson looked up.
"Who is she?" she asked.
Seth shook his head.
"Don't know. Maybe she's yours--an' mine."
"Don't you know wher' she come from?"
Again Seth shook his head.
"An'--an' what's her name?"
"Can't say--leastways her initials are M. R. You see I got her from--there that's it. I got her from the Rosebuds. That's her name. Rosebud!"