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There came a time in the law of life When over the nursing sod The shadows broke, and the soul awoke In a strange, dim dream of God. --LANGDON SMITH.
 
 It might have been but yesterday that I saw it all: the glinting sunlight on the yellow Missouri boiling endlessly along at the foot of the bluff; the flood-washed sands across the river; the tangle of tall, coarse weeds fringing them, edged by the scrubby underbrush. And beyond that the big trees of the Missouri woodland, so level against the eastern horizon that I used to wonder if I might not walk upon their solid-looking tops if I could only reach them. I wondered, too, why the trees on our side of the river should vary so in height when those in the eastern distance were so evenly grown. One day I had asked Jondo the reason for this, and had learned that it was because of the level ground on the farther side of the valley. I began then to love the level places of the earth. I love them still. And, always excepting that one titanic rift, where the world stands edgewise, with the sublimity of the Almighty shimmering through its far depths, I love them more than any other thing that nature has yet offered to me.
 But to come back to that picture of yesterday: old Fort Leavenworth on the bluff; the little and big ravines that billow the landscape about it; the faint lines of trails winding along the hillsides toward the southwest; the unclouded skies so everlastingly big and intensely blue; and, hanging like a spray of glorious blossoms flung high above me, the swaying folds of the wind-caressed flag, now drooping on its tall staff, now swelling full and free, straight from its gripping halyards.
 Between me and the fort many people were passing to and fro, some of whom were to walk with me down the long trail of years. Evermore that April day stands out as the beginning of things for me. Dim are the days behind it, a jumble of happy childish hours, each keen enough as the things of childhood go; but from that one day to the present hour the unforgotten deeds of busy years run clearly in my memory as I lift my pen to write somewhat of their dramatic record.
 And that this may not seem all a backward gaze, let me face about and look forward from the beginning--a stretch of canvas, lurid sometimes, sometimes in glorious tinting, sometimes intensely dark, with rifts of lightning cleaving through its blackness. But nowhere dull, nowhere without design in every brush-stroke.
 I had gone out on the bluff to watch for the big fish that Bill Banney, a young Kentuckian over at the fort, had told me were to be seen only on those April days when the Missouri was running north instead of south. And that when little boys kept very still, the fish would come out of the water and play leap-frog on the sand-bars.
 If I failed to see them this morning, I meant to run back to the parade-ground and play leap-frog myself with my cousin Beverly, who wanted proof for most of Bill Banney's stories. Beverly was growing wise and lanky for his age. I was still chubby, and in most things innocent, and inclined to believe all that I heard, or I should not have been taken in by that fish story.
 We were orphans with no recollection of any other home than the log house near the fort. We had been fathered and mothered by our uncle, Esmond Clarenden, owner of the little store across the square from our house, and a larger establishment down at Independence on the Missouri River.
 Always a wonderful man to me was that Esmond Clarenden, product of one of the large old New England colleges. He found time to guard our young years with the same diplomatic system by which he controlled all of his business affairs. He laid his plans carefully and never swerved from carrying them through afterward; he insisted on order in everything; he rendered value for value in his contracts; he chose his employees carefully, and trusted them fully; he had a keen sense of humor, a genial spirit of good-will, and he loved little children. Fitted as he was by culture and genius to have entered into the greater opportunities of the Eastern States, he gave himself to the real up-building of the West, and in the larger comfort and prosperity and peace of the Kansas prairies of to-day his soul goes marching on.
 The waters, as I watched them, were all running south toward that vague, down-stream world shut off by trees at a bend of the course. I waited a long time there for the current to shift to the north, wondering meanwhile about those level-topped forests, and what I might see beyond them if I were sitting on their flat crests. And, as I wondered, the first dim sense of being _shut in_ came filtering through my childish consciousness. I could not cross the river. Big as my playground had always been, I had never been out of sight of the fort's flagstaff up-stream, nor down-stream. The wooded ravines blocked me on the southwest. What lay beyond these limits I had tried to picture again and again. I had been a dreamer all of my short life, and this new feeling of being shut in, held back, from something slipped upon me easily.
 As I sat on the bluff in the April sunshine, I turned my face toward the west and stretched out my chubby arms for larger freedom. I wanted to _see the open level places_, wanted till it hurt me. I could cry easily enough for some things. I could not cry for this. It was too deep for tears to reach. Moreover, this new longing seemed to drop down on me suddenly and overwhelm me, until I felt almost as if I were caught in a net.
 As I stared with half-seeing eyes toward the wooded ravines beyond the fort, suddenly through the budding branches I caught sight of a horseman riding down a half-marked trail into a deep hollow. Horsemen were common enough to forget in a moment, but when this one reappeared on the hither side of the ravine, I saw that the rider's face was very dark, that his dress, from the sombrero to the spurred heel, was Mexican, and that he was heavily armed, even for a plainsman. When he reached the top of the bluff he made straight across the square toward my uncle Esmond Clarenden's little storehouse, and I lost sight of him.
 Something about him seemed familiar to me, for the gift of remembering faces was mine, even then. A fleeting childish memory called up such a face and dress somewhere back in the dim days of babyhood, with the haunting sound of a low, musical voice, speaking in the soft Castilian tongue.
 But the memory vanished and I sat a long time gazing at the wooded west that hid the open West of my day-dreams.
 Suddenly Jondo came riding up on his big black horse to the very edge of the bluff.
 "You are such a little mite, I nearly forgot to see you," he called, cheerily. "Your Uncle Esmond wants you right away. Mat Nivers, or somebody else, sent me to run you down," he added, leaning over to lift me up to a seat on the horse behind him.
 Few handsomer men ever graced a saddle. Big, broad-shouldered, muscular, yet agile, a head set like a Greek statue, and a face--nobody could ever make a picture of Jondo's face for me--the curling brown hair, soft as a girl's, the broad forehead, deep-set blue eyes, heavy dark brow, cheeks always ruddy through the plain's tan, strong white teeth, firm square chin, and a smile like sunshine on the gray prairies. Eyes, lips, teeth--aye, the big heart behind them--all made that smile. No grander prince of men ever rode the trails or dared the dangers of the untamed West. I did not know his story for many years. I wish I might never have known it. But as he began with me, so he ended--brave, beloved old Jondo!
 Down on the parade-ground Beverly Clarenden and Mat Nivers were sitting with their feet crossed under them, tailor fashion, facing each other and talking earnestly. Over by the fort, Esmond Clarenden stood under a big elm-tree. A round little, stout little man he was, whose sturdy strength and grace of bearing made up for his lack of height. Like a great green tent the boughs of the elm, just budding into leaf, drooped over him. A young army officer on a cavalry horse was talking with him as we came up.
 "Run over there to Beverly now. Gail," my uncle said, with a wave of his hand.
 I was always in awe of shoulder-straps, so I scampered away toward the children. But not until, child-like, I had stared at the three men long enough to take a child's lasting estimate of things.
 I carry still the keen impression of that moment when I took, unconsciously, the measure of the three: the mounted army man, commander of the fort, big in his official authority and force; Jondo on his great black horse, to me the heroic type of chivalric courage; and between the two, Esmond Clarenden, unmounted, with feet firmly planted, suggesting nothing heroic, nothing autocratic. And yet, as he stood there, square-built, solid, certain, he seemed in some dim way to be the real man of whom the other two were but shadows. It took a quarter of a century for me to put into words what I learned with one glance that day in my childhood.
 As I came running toward the parade-ground Beverly Clarenden called out:
 "Come here, Gail! Shut your little mouth and open your big ears, and I'll tell you something. Maybe I'd better not tell you all at once, though. It might make you dizzy," he added, teasingly.
 "And maybe you better had," Mat Nivers said, calmly.
 "Maybe you'd better tell him yourself, if you feel that way," Beverly retorted.
 "I guess I'll do that," Mat began, with a twinkle in her big gray eyes; but my cousin interrupted her.
 Beverly loved to tease Mat through me, but he never got far, for I relied on her to curb him; and she was not one to be ruffled by trifles. Mat was an orphan and, like ourselves, a ward of Esmond Clarenden, but there were no ties of kinship between us. She was three years older than Beverly, and although she was no taller than he, she seemed like a woman to me, a keen-witted, good-natured child-woman, neat, cleanly, and contented. I wonder if many women get more out of life in these days of luxurious comforts than she found in the days of frontier hardships.
 "Well, it's this way, Gail. Mat doesn't know the straight of it," Beverly began, dramatically. "There's going to be a war, or something, in Mexico, or somewhere, and a lot of soldiers are coming here to drill, and drill, and drill. And then--"
 The boy paused for effect.
 "And then, and then, _and_ then--or some time," Mat Nivers mimicked, jumping into the pause. "Why, they'll go to Mexico, or somewhere. And what Bev is really trying to tell hasn't anything to do with it--not directly, anyhow," she added, wisely. "The only new thing is that Uncle Esmond is going to Santa Fé right away. You know he has bought goods of the Santa Fé traders since we couldn't remember. And now he's going down there himself, and he's going to take you boys with him. That's what Bev is trying to get out, or keep back."
 "Whoopee-diddle-dee!" Beverly shouted, throwing himself backward and kicking up his heels.
 I jumped up and capered about in glee at the thought of such a journey. But my heart-throb of childish delight was checked, mid-beat.
 "Won't Mat go, too?" I asked, with a sudden pain at my throat. Mat Nivers was a part of life to me.
 The smile fell away from the girl's lips. Her big, sunshiny gray eyes and her laughing good nature always made her beautiful to Beverly and me.
 "I don't want to go and leave Mat," I insisted.
 "Oh, I do," Beverly declared, boastingly. "It would be real nice and jolly without her. And what could a little girl do 'way out on the prairies, and no mother to take care of her, while we were shooting Indians?"
 He sprang up and took aim at the fort with an imaginary bow and arrow. But there was a hollow note in his voice as if it covered a sob.
 "She can shoot Indians as good as you can, Beverly Clarenden, and, besides, there isn't anybody to mother her here but Jondo, and I reckon he'll go with us, won't he?" I urged.
 Mothering was not in my stock of memories. The heart-hunger of the orphan child had been eased by the gentleness of Jondo, the championship of Mat Nivers, and the sure defense of Esmond Clarenden, who said little to children, and was instinctively trusted by all of them.
 With Beverly's banter the smile came back quickly to Mat's eyes. It was never lost from them long at a time.
 "Beverly Clarenden, you keep _your_ little mouth shut and _your_ big ears open," she began, laughingly. "I know the whole sheboodle better 'n any of you, and I'm not teasing and whimpering both at the same time, neither. Bev doesn't know anything except what I've told him, and I wasn't through when you got here, Gail. There is going to be a big war in Texas, and our soldiers are going to go, and to win, too. Just look up at that flag there, and remember now, boys, that wherever the Stars and Stripes go they _stay_."
 "Who told you all that?" Beverly inquired.
 "The stars up in the sky told me that last night," Mat replied, pulling down the corners of her mouth solemnly. "But Uncle Esmond hasn't anything to do with the war, nor soldiers, only like he has been doing here," the girl went on. "He's a store-man, a merchant, and I guess he's just about as good as a general--a colonel, anyhow. But he's too short to fight, and too fat to run."
 "He isn't any coward," Beverly objected.
 "Who said he was?" Mat inquired. "He's one of them usefulest men that keeps things going everywhere."
 "I saw a real Mexican come up out of the ravine awhile ago and go straight over toward Uncle Esmond's store. What do you suppose he came here for? Is he a soldier from down there?" I asked.
 "Oh, just one Mexican don't mean anything anywhere, but the war in Mexico has something to do with our going to Santa Fe, even if Uncle Esmond is just a nice little store-man. That's all a girl knows about things," Beverly insisted.
 Mat opened her big eyes wide and looked straight at the boy.
 "I don't pretend to know what I don't know, but I'll bet a million billion dollars there is something else besides just all this war stuff. I can't tell it, I just feel it. Anyhow, I'm to stay here with Aunty Boone till you come back. Girls can be trusted anywhere, but it may take the whole Army of the West, yet, to follow up and look after two little runty boys. And let me tell _you_ something, Bev, something I heard Aunty Boone say this morning." She said: "Taint goin' to be more 'n a minnit now till them boys grows up an' grows together, same size, same age. They been little and big, long as they goin' to be. Now you know what you're coming to."
 Mat was digging in the ground with a stick, and she flipped a clod at Beverly with the last words. Both of us had once expected to marry her when we grew up, unless Jondo should carry her away as his bride before that time. He was a dozen years older than Mat, who was only fourteen and small for her age. A flush always came to her cheeks when we talked of Jondo in that way. We didn't know why.
 We sat silent for a little while. A vague sense of desolateness, of the turning-places of life, as real to children as to older folk, seemed to press suddenly down upon all three of us. Ours was not the ordinary child-life even of that day. And that was a time when children had no world of their own as they have to-day. Whatever developed men and women became a part of the younger life training as well. And while we were ignorant of much that many children then learned early, for we had lived mostly beside the fort on the edge of the wilderness, we were alert, and self-dependent, fearless and far-seeing. We could use tools readily: we could build fires and prepare game for cooking; we could climb trees, set traps, swim in the creek, and ride horses. Moreover, we were bound to one another by the force of isolation and need for playmates. Our imagination supplied much that our surroundings denied us. So we felt more deeply, maybe, than many city-bred children who would have paled with fear at dangers that we only laughed over.
 No ripple in the even tenor of our days, however, had given any hint of the coming of this sudden tense oppression on our young souls, and we were stunned by what we could neither express nor understand.
 "Whatever comes or doesn't come," Beverly said at last, stretching himself at full length, stomach downward, on the bare ground, "whatever happens to us, we three will stand by each other always and always, won't we, Mat?"
 He lifted his face to the girl's. Oh, Beverly! I saw him again one day down the years, stretched out on the ground like this, lifting again a pleading face. But that belongs--down the years.
 "Yes, always and always," Mat replied, and then because she had a Spartan spirit, she added: "But let's don't say any more that way. Let's think of what you are going to see--the plains, the Santa Fé Trail, the mountains, and maybe bad Indians. And even old Santa Fé town itself. You are in for 'the big shift,' as Aunty Boone says, and you've got to be little men and take whatever comes. It will come fast enough, you can bet on that."
 Yesterday I might have sobbed on her shoulder. I did not know then that out on the bluff an hour ago I had come to the first turn in my life-trail, and that I could not look back now. I did know that I _wanted to go with Uncle Esmond._ I looked away from Mat's gray eyes, and Beverly's head dropped on his arms, face downward--looked at nothing but blue sky, and a graceful drooping flag; nothing but a half-sleepy, half-active fort; nothing but the yellow April floods far up-stream, between wooded banks tenderly gray-green in the spring sunshine. But I did not see any of these things then. Before my eyes there stretched a vast level prairie, with dim mountain heights beyond them. And marching toward them westward, westward, past lurking danger, Indians here and wild beasts there, went three men: the officer on his cavalry mount; Jondo on his big black horse; Esmond Clarenden, neither mounted nor on foot, it seemed, but going forward somehow. And between these three and the misty mountain peaks there was a face--not Mat Nivers's, for the first time in all my day-dreams--a sweet face with dark eyes looking straight into mine. And plainly then, just as plainly as I have heard it many times since then, came a call--the first clear bugle-note of the child-soul--a call to service, to patriotism, and to love.
 All that afternoon while Mat Nivers sang about her tasks Beverly and I tried to play together among the elm and cottonwood trees about our little home, but evening found us wide awake and moping. Instead of the two tired little sleepy-heads that could barely finish supper, awake, when night came, we lay in our trundle-bed, whispering softly to each other and staring at the dark with tear-wet eyes--our spiritual barometers warning us of a coming change. Something must have happened to us that night which only the retrospect of years revealed. In that hour Beverly Clarenden lost a year of his life and I gained one. From that time we were no longer little and big to each other--we were comrades.
 It must have been nearly midnight when I crept out of bed and slipped into the big room where Uncle Esmond and Jondo sat by the fireplace, talking together.
 "Hello, little night-hawk! Come here and roost," Jondo said, opening his arms to me.
 I slid into their embrace and snuggled my head against his broad shoulder, listening to all that was said. Three months later the little boy had become a little man, and my cuddling days had given place to the self-reliance of the fearless youngster of the trail.
 "Why do you make this trip now, Esmond?" Jondo asked at length, looking straight into my uncle's face.
 "I want to get down there right now because I want to get a grip on trade conditions. I can do better after the war if I do. It won't last long, and we are sure to take over a big piece of ground there when it is over. And when that is settled commerce must do the real building-up of the country. I want to be a part of that thing and grow with it. Why do you go with me?"
 My uncle looked directly at Jondo, although he asked the question carelessly.
 "To help you cross the plains. You know the redskins get worse every trip," Jondo answered, lightly.
 I stared at both of them until Jondo said, laughingly:
 "You little owl, what are you thinking about?"
 "I think you are telling each other stories," I replied, frankly.
 For somehow their faces made me think of Beverly's face out on the parade-ground that morning, when he had lifted it and looked at Mat Nivers; and their voices, deep bass as they were, sounded like Beverly's voice whispering between his sobs, before he went to sleep.
 Both men smiled and said nothing. But when I went to my bed again Jondo tucked the covers about me and Uncle Esmond came and bade me good night.
 "I guess you have the makings of a plainsman," he said, with a smile, as he patted me on the head.
 "The beginnings, anyhow," Jondo added. "He can see pretty far already."
 For a long time I lay awake, thinking of all that Uncle Esmond and Jondo had said to me. It is no wonder that I remember that April day as if it were but yesterday. Such days come only to childhood, and oftentimes when no one of older years can see clearly enough to understand the bigness of their meaning to the child who lives through them.
 All of my life I had heard stories of the East, of New York and St. Louis, where there were big houses and wonderful stores. And of Washington, where there was a President, and a Congress, and a strange power that could fill and empty Fort Leavenworth at will. I had heard of the Great Lakes, and of cotton-fields, and tobacco-plantations, and sugar-camps, and ships, and steam-cars. I had pictured these things a thousand times in my busy imagination and had longed to see them. But from that day they went out of my life-dreams. Henceforth I belonged to the prairies of the West. No one but myself took account of this, nor guessed that a life-trend had had its commencement in the small events of one unimportant day.