5. A Birthday Gift
Rosebud struggled through five long months of illness after her arrival at White River Farm. It was only the untiring care of Rube and his wife, and Seth, that pulled her through. The wound at the base of the skull had affected her brain as well as body, and, until the last moment when she finally awoke to consciousness, her case seemed utterly without hope.
But when at last her convalescence came it was marvelously rapid. It was not until the good old housewife began to question her patient that the full result of the cruel blow on her head was realized. Then it was found that she had no recollection of any past. She knew not who she was, her name, her age, even her nationality. She had a hazy idea of Indians, which, as she grew stronger, became more pronounced, until she declared that she must have lived among Indians all her life.
It was this last that roused Seth to a sense of what he conceived to be his duty. And with that deliberateness which always characterized him, he set about it at once. From the beginning, after his first great burst of pitying sorrow for the little waif, when he had clasped her in his arms and almost fiercely claimed her for his own, his treasure trove, he had realized that she belonged to some other world than his own. This thought stayed with him. It slumbered during the child's long illness, but roused to active life when he discovered that she had no knowledge of herself. Therefore he set about inquiries. He must find out to whom she belonged and restore her to her people.
There was no one missing for two hundred miles round Beacon Crossing except the Jasons. It was impossible that the Indians could have gone farther afield, for they had not been out twenty-four hours when Rosebud was rescued. So his search for the child's friends proved unavailing.
Still, from that day on he remained loyal to her. Any clue, however frail, was never too slight for him to hunt to its source. He owed it to her to restore her to her own, whatever regret it might cost him to lose her. He was not the man to shirk a painful duty, certainly not where his affections were concerned.
During the six years, while Rosebud was growing to womanhood, Seth's hands were very full. Those wonderful violet eyes belonged to no milk and water "miss." From the very beginning the girl proved herself spirited and wilful. Not in any vicious way. A "madcap" best describes her. She had no thought of consequences; only the delight of the moment, the excitement and risk. These were the things that plunged her into girlish scrapes from which it fell to the lot of Seth to extricate her. All her little escapades were in themselves healthy enough, but they were rarely without a smack of physical danger.
She began when she learned to ride, a matter which of course devolved upon Seth.
Once she could sit a wild, half-tamed broncho her career in the direction of accident became checkered. Once, after a day's search for her, Seth brought her home insensible. She had been thrown from her horse, an animal as wildly wilful as herself.
A little private target practice with a revolver resulted in the laming of a cow, and the killing of a chicken, and in nearly terminating Rube's career, when he ran out of the house to ascertain the meaning of the firing. Once she was nearly drowned in the White River, while bathing with the Indian children after service at the Mission. She was never free from the result of childish recklessness. And this feature of her character grew with her, though her achievements moderated as the years passed.
It was by these wild means that she endeared herself to the folks on the farm. Seth's love grew apace. He made no attempt to deceive himself. He loved her as a child, and that love changed only in its nature when she became a woman. He made no attempt to check it. He knew she was not for him; never could be. He, a rough, half-educated plainsman; she, a girl who displayed, even in her most reckless moods, that indelible stamp which marked the disparity between the social worlds to which they belonged. He was convinced, without disparaging himself, that to attempt to win her would be an outrage, an imposition on her. Worse, it would be rankly dishonest.
So the man said nothing. All that lay within his heart he kept hidden far out of sight. No chance word or weak moment should reveal it. No one should ever know, least of all Rosebud.
But in all this Seth reckoned without his host. Such glorious eyes, such a charming face as Rosebud possessed were not likely to belong to a girl devoid of the instincts of her sex. As she grew up her perspective changed. She saw things in a different light. Seth no longer appealed to her as a sort of uncle, or even father. She saw in him a young man of medium good looks, a strong, fine figure. A man who had no idea of the meaning of the word fear; a man who had a way of saying and doing things which often made her angry, but always made her glad that he said and did them. Furthermore, she soon learned that he was only twenty-eight. Therefore, she resented many things which she had hitherto accepted as satisfactory. She made up her wilful mind that it didn't please her to call him "Daddy" Seth any longer.
Those six years brought another change; a change in the life of the wood-cutter of White River. He still lived in his log hut, but he had taken to himself a wife, the beautiful orphaned daughter of Big Wolf, and sister of the reigning chief, Little Black Fox. Whatever may have been Nevil Steyne's position before, he was completely ostracized by his fellows now, that is by all but the folk at White River Farm. Men no longer suggested that he had "taken the blanket"; they openly asserted it.
The reason of Nevil Steyne's toleration by the White River Farm people was curious. It was for Rosebud's sake; Rosebud and Wanaha, the wife of the renegade wood-cutter. The latter was different from the rest of her race. She was almost civilized, a woman of strong, honest character in spite of her upbringing. And between Rosebud and this squaw a strong friendship had sprung up. Kindly Rube and his wife could not find it in their hearts to interfere, and even Seth made no attempt to check it. He looked on and wondered without approval; and wonder with him quickly turned into keen observation.
And it is with this strange friendship that we have to deal now.
Inside the log hut on the White River, Wanaha was standing before a small iron cook-stove preparing her husband's food. It was the strangest sight imaginable to see her cooking in European fashion. Yet she did it in no uncertain manner. She learned it all because she loved her white husband, just as she learned to speak English, and to dress after the manner of white women. She went further. With the assistance of the missionary and Rosebud she learned to read and sew, and to care for a house. And all this labor of a great love brought her the crowning glory of legitimate wifehood with a renegade white man, and the care of a dingy home that no white girl would have faced. But she was happy. Happy beyond all her wildest dreams in the smoke-begrimed tepee of her father.
Nevil Steyne had just returned from Beacon Crossing, whither he had gone to sell a load of cord-wood, and to ask for mail at the post-office. Strange as it may seem, this man still received letters from England. But to-day he had returned with only a packet of newspapers.
He entered the hut without notice or greeting for Wanaha, who, in true Indian fashion, waited by the cook-stove for her lord to speak first.
He passed over to the bedstead which occupied the far end of the room, and sat himself down to a perusal of his papers. He was undoubtedly preoccupied and not intentionally unkind to the woman.
Wanaha went steadily on with her work. For her this was quite as it should be. He would speak presently. She was satisfied.
Presently the man flung his papers aside, and the woman's deep eyes met his as he looked across at her.
"Well, Wana," he said, "I've sold the wood and got orders for six more cords. Business is booming."
The man spoke in English. Yet he spoke Wanaha's tongue as fluently as she did herself. Here again the curious submissive nature of the woman was exampled. He must speak his own tongue. It was not right that he should be forced to use hers.
"I am much happy," she said simply. Then her woman's thought rose superior to greater issues. "You will eat?" she went on.
"Yes, Wana. I'm hungry--very."
"So." The woman's eyes smiled into his, and she eagerly set the food on a table made of packing cases.
Steyne began at once. He was thoughtful while he ate. But after a while he looked up, and there was a peculiar gleam in his blue eyes as they rested on the warm, rich features of his willing slave.
"Pretty poor sort of place--this," he said. "It's not good enough for you, my Wana."
The woman had seated herself on a low stool near the table. It was one of her few remaining savage instincts she would not give up. It was not fitting that she should eat with him.
"How would you like a house, a big house, like--White River Farm?" he went on, as though he were thinking aloud. "And hundreds, thousands, of steers and cows? And buggies to ride in? And farm machinery? And--and plenty of fine clothes to wear, like--like Rosebud?"
The woman shook her head and indicated her humble belongings.
"This--very good. Very much good. See, you are here. I want you."
The man flushed and laughed a little awkwardly. But he was well pleased.
"Oh, we're happy enough. You and I, my Wana. But--we'll see."
Wanaha made no comment; and when his meat was finished she set a dish of buckwheat cakes and syrup before him.
He devoured them hungrily, and the woman's eyes grew soft with delight at his evident pleasure.
At last his thoughtfulness passed, and he put an abrupt question.
"Where's your brother, now?"
"Little Black Fox is by his tepee. He goes hunting with another sun. Yes?"
"I must go and see him this afternoon."
Steyne pushed his plate away, and proceeded to fill his pipe.
The expressive eyes of the woman had changed again. His announcement seemed to give her little pleasure.
"Yes, I have things to pow-wow with him."
"Ah. Rosebud? Always Rosebud?"
The man laughed.
"My Wana does not like Little Black Fox to think of Rosebud, eh?"
Wanaha was silent for a while. Then she spoke in a low tone.
"Little Black Fox is not wise. He is very fierce. No, I love my brother, but Rosebud must not be his squaw. I love Rosebud, too."
The blue eyes of the man suddenly became very hard.
"Big Wolf captured Rosebud, and would have kept her for your brother. Therefore she is his by right of war. Indian war. This Seth kills your father. He says so. He takes Rosebud. Is it for him to marry her? Your brother does not think so."
Wanaha's face was troubled. "It was in war. You said yourself. My brother could not hold her from the white man. Then his right is gone. Besides----"
"A chief may not marry a white girl."
"You married a white man."
"It is different."
There was silence for some time while Wanaha cleared away the plates. Presently, as she was bending over the cook-stove, she spoke again. And she kept her face turned from her husband while she spoke.
"You want Rosebud for my brother. Why?"
"I?" Nevil laughed uneasily. Wanaha had a way of putting things very directly. "I don't care either way."
"Yet you pow-wow with him? You say 'yes' when he talks of Rosebud?"
It was the man's turn to look away, and by doing so he hid a deep cunning in his eyes.
"Oh, that's because Little Black Fox is not an easy man. He is unreasonable. It is no use arguing with him. Besides, they will see he never gets Rosebud." He nodded in the direction of White River Farm.
"I have said he is very fierce. He has many braves. One never knows. My brother longs for the war-path. He would kill Seth. For Seth killed our father. One never knows. It is better you say to him, 'Rosebud is white. The braves want no white squaw.'"
But the man had had enough of the discussion, and began to whistle. It was hard to understand how he had captured the loyal heart of this dusky princess. He was neither good-looking nor of a taking manner. His appearance was dirty, unkempt. His fair hair, very thin and getting gray at the crown, was long and uncombed, and his moustache was ragged and grossly stained. Yet she loved him with a devotion which had made her willing to renounce her people for him if necessary, and this means far more in a savage than it does amongst the white races.
Steyne put on his greasy slouch hat and swung out of the house. Wanaha knew that what she had said was right, Nevil Steyne encouraged Little Black Fox. She wondered, and was apprehensive. Nevertheless, she went on with her work. The royal blood of her race was strong in her. She had much of the stoicism which is, perhaps, the most pronounced feature of her people. It was no good saying more than she had said. If she saw necessity she would do, and not talk.
She was still in the midst of her work when a sound caught her ear which surely no one else could have heard. In response she went to the door. A rider, still half a mile away, was approaching. She went back to her washing-up, smiling. She had recognized the rider even at that distance. Therefore she was in nowise surprised when, a few minutes later, she heard a bright, girlish voice hailing her from without.
"Wana, Wana!" The tone was delightfully imperious. "Why don't you have some place to tie a horse to?"
It was Rosebud. Wanaha had expected her, for it was the anniversary of her coming to White River Farm, and the day Ma Sampson had allotted for her birthday.
Wanaha went out to meet her friend. This greeting had been made a hundred times, on the occasion of every visit Rosebud made to the woman's humble home. It was a little joke between them, for there was a large iron hook high up on the wall, just out of the girl's reach, set there for the purpose of tying up a horse. The squaw took the girl's reins from her hands, and hitched them to the hook.
"Welcome," she said in her deep voice, and held out a hand to be shaken as white folk shake hands, not in the way Indians do it.
"What is it I must say to you?" she went on, in a puzzled way. "Oh, I know. 'Much happy return.' That is how you tell me the last time you come."
The squaw's great black eyes wore their wonderful soft look as they gazed down upon her visitor. It was a strange contrast they made as they stood there in the full light of the summer afternoon sun.
Both were extremely handsome of figure, though the Indian woman was more natural and several inches taller. But their faces were opposite in every detail. The squaw was dark, with clear velvety skin, and eyes black and large and deeply luminous; she had a broad, intelligent forehead over which her straight black hair fell from a natural centre parting, and was caught back from her face at about the level of her mouth with two bows of deep red braid. Her features might have been chiseled by a sculptor, they were so perfectly symmetrical, so accurately proportioned. And there were times, too, when, even to the eyes of a white man, her color rather enhanced her beauty; and this was when her slow smile crept over her face.
Rosebud had no classical regularity of feature, but she had what is better. Her face was a series of expressions, changing with almost every moment as her swift-passing moods urged her. One feature she possessed that utterly eclipsed anything the stately beauty of the other could claim. She had large, lustrous violet eyes that seemed like wells of ever-changing color. They never looked at you with the same shade in their depths twice. They were eyes that madden by reason of their inconsistency. They dwarfed in beauty every other feature in the girl's face. She was pretty in an irregular manner, but one never noticed anything in her face when her eyes were visible. These, and her masses of golden hair, which flowed loosely about her head in thick, rope-like curls, were her great claims to beauty.
Now, as she stood smiling up into the dark face above her, she looked what she was; a girl in the flush of early womanhood, a prairie girl, wild as the flowers which grow hidden in the lank grass of the plains, as wayward as the breezes which sweep them from every point of the compass.
"Mayn't I come in?" asked Rosebud, as the woman made no move to let her pass.
Wanaha turned with some haste. "Surely," she said. "I was thinking. What you call 'dreaming.'"
She eagerly put a stool for the girl to sit upon. But Rosebud preferred the table.
"Well, Wana," said the girl, playfully, "you said you wanted me particularly to-day, so, at great inconvenience to myself, and mother, I have come. If it isn't important you'll get into grave trouble. I was going to help Seth hoe the potatoes, but----"
"Poor Seth." Wanaha had caught something of the other's infectious mood.
"I don't think he needs any pity, either," said Rosebud, impulsively. "Seth's sometimes too much of a good thing. He said I ought to learn to hoe. And I don't think hoeing's very nice for one thing; besides, he always gets angry if I cut out any of the plants. He can just do it himself."
"Seth's a good man. He killed my father; but he is good, I think."
"Yes." For the moment Rosebud had become grave. "I wonder what would have----" She broke off and looked searchingly into her friend's face. "Wana," she went on abruptly, "why did you send for me to-day? I can't stay. I really can't, I must go back and help Seth, or he'll be so angry."
Rosebud quite ignored her own contradictions, but Wanaha didn't.
"No, and it is not good to make Seth angry. He--what-you-call--he very good by you. See, I say come to me. You come, and I have--ah--ah," she broke off in a bewildered search for a word. "No--that not it. So, I know. Birthday pre--sent."
Wanaha gave a triumphant glance into Rosebud's laughing face and went to a cupboard, also made of packing cases, and brought forth a pair of moose-hide moccasins, perfectly beaded and trimmed with black fox fur. She had made them with her own hands for her little friend, a labor of love into which she had put the most exquisite work of which she was capable.
Rosebud's delight was unfeigned. The shoes were perfect. The leather was like the finest kid. It was a present worthy of the giver. She held out her hands for them, but the Indian laughed and shook her head.
"No," she said playfully. "No, you white woman! Your folk not carry things so," and she held the tiny shoes out at arm's length. "You put paper round, so." She picked up one of her husband's newspapers and wrapped the present into a clumsy parcel. "There," she exclaimed, handing it to the girl, "I wish you much happy!"
As she put the parcel into the outstretched hands, Rosebud sprang from the table and flung her arms round the giver's neck, and kissed her heartily.
"You're the dandiest thing in the world, Wana," she cried impulsively, "and I love you."