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Whose furthest footsteps never strayed Beyond the village of his birth, Is but a lodger for the night In this old Wayside Inn of Earth.
 The broad green prairies of the West roll back in huge billows from the Missouri bluffs, and ripple gently on, to melt at last into the level grassy plains sloping away to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Up and down these land-waves, and across these ripples, the old Santa Fé Trail, the slender pathway of a wilderness-bridging commerce, led out toward the great Southwest--a thousand weary miles--to end at last, where the narrow thoroughfare reached the primitive hostelry at the corner of the plaza in the heart of the capital of a Spanish-Mexican demesne.
 It was a strange old highway, tying the western frontier of a new, self-reliant American civilization to the eastern limit of an autocratic European offshoot, grafted upon an ancient Indian stock of the Western Hemisphere. In language, nationality, social code, political faith, and prevailing spiritual creed, the terminals of this highway were as unlike as their geographical naming. For the trail began at _Independence_, in Missouri, and ended at Santa Fé, the "_City of the Holy Faith_," in New Mexico.
 The little trading town of Independence was a busy place in the frontier years of the Middle West. Ungentle and unlovely as it was, it was the great gateway between the river traffic on the one side, and the plains commerce of the far Southwest on the other. At the wharf at Westport, only a few miles away, the steamers left their cargoes of flour and bacon, coffee and calicoes, jewelry and sugar--whatever might have a market value to merchants beyond the desert lands. And here these same steamers took on furs, and silver bullion, and such other produce of the mountains and mines and open plains as the opulently laden caravans had toiled through long days, overland, to bring to the river's wharf.
 To-day the same old gateway stands as of yore. But it may be given only to men who have seen what I have seen, to know how that our Kansas City, the Beautiful, could grow up from that old wilderness outpost of commerce threescore and more years ago.
 The Clarenden store was the busiest spot in the center of this busy little town. Goods from both lines of trade entered and cleared here. In front of the building three Conestoga wagons with stout mule teams stood ready. A fourth wagon, the Dearborn carriage of that time, filled mostly with bedding, clothing, and the few luxuries a long camping-out journey may indulge in, waited only for a team, and we would be off to the plains.
 Jondo and Bill Banney were busy with the last things to be done before we started. Aunty Boone sat on a pile of pelts inside the store, smoking her pipe. Beverly and Mat stood waiting in the big doorway, while I sat on a barrel outside, because my ankle was still a bit stiff. A crowd had gathered before the store to see us off. It was not such a company as the soldier-men at the fort. The outlaw, the loafer, the drunkard, the ruffian, the gambler, and the trickster far outnumbered the stern-faced men of affairs. When the balance turns the other way the frontier disappears. Mingling with these was a pale-faced invalid now and then, with the well-appointed new arrivals from the East.
 "What are we waiting for, Bev?" I asked, as the street filled with men.
 "Got to get another span of moolies for our baby-cart. Uncle Esmond hadn't counted on the nurse and the cook going, you know, but he rigged this littler wagon out in a twinkle."
 "That's the family carriage, drawn by spirited steeds. Us children are to ride in it, with Daniel Boone to help with the driving," Mat added.
 Just then Esmond Clarenden appeared at the door.
 "How soon do you start, Clarenden?" some one in the crowd inquired.
 "Just as soon as I can get a pair of well-broken mules," he replied. "I'm looking for the man who has them to sell quick. I'm in a hurry."
 "What's your great rush?" a well-dressed stranger asked. "They tell me things look squally out West."
 "All the more reason for my being in a hurry then," Uncle Esmond returned.
 "They ain't but three men of you, is they? What do you want of more mules?" put in an inquisitive idler of the trouble-loving class who sooner or later turn arguments into bitter brawls.
 "These three children and the cook in there have this wagon. They are all fair drivers, if I can get the right mules," my uncle said.
 Women and children did not cross the plains in those days, nor could public welfare allow that so valuable a piece of property as Aunty Boone would be in the slave-market should be lost to commerce, and the storm of protest that followed would have overcome a less determined man. It was not on account of sympathy for the weak and defenseless that called out all this abuse, but the lawless spirit that stirs up a mob on the slightest excuse.
 I slid away to the door, where, with Mat and Beverly, I watched Esmond Clarenden, who was listening with his good-natured smile to all of that loud street talk.
 "No man's life is insurable in these troublesome times, with our troops right now down in Mexico," a suave Southern trader urged. "Better sell your slave and put that nice little gal in a boardin'-school somewhere in the South."
 "I'll give you a mighty good bargain for that wench, Clarenden. She might be worth a clare fortune in New Orleans. What d'ye say to a cool thousand?" another man declared, with a slow. Southern drawl.
 Aunty Boone took the pipe from her lips and looked at the stranger.
 "Y'would!" she grunted, stretching her big right hand across her lap, like a huge paw with claws ready underneath.
 "Them plains Injuns never was more _hostile_ than they air right now. I just got in from the mountains an' I know. An' they're bein' set on by more _hostile_ Mexican devils, and political _intrigs_," a bearded mountaineer trapper argued.
 "'Sides all that," interposed the suave Southern gentleman, "it's too early in the spring. Freightin's bound to be delayed by rains--and a nice little gal with only a nigger--" He was not quite himself, and he did not try to say more.
 "Seems like some of these gentlemen consider you are some sort of a fool," a tall, lean Yankee youth observed, as he listened to the babble.
 I had climbed back on the barrel again to see the crowd better, and I stared at the last speaker. His voice was not unpleasant, but he appeared pale and weak and spiritless in that company of tanned, rugged men. Evidently he was an invalid in search of health. We children had seen many invalids, from time to time, at the fort harmless folk, who came to fuss, and stayed to flourish, in our gracious land of the open air.
 "You are a dam' fool," roared a big drunken loafer from the edge of the crowd. "An' I'd lick you in a minnit if you das step into the middle of the street onct. Ornery sneak, to take innocent children into such perils. Come on out here, I tell ye!"
 A growl followed these words. Many men in that company were less than half sober, and utterly irresponsible.
 "Le's jes' hang the fool storekeepin' gent right now; an' make a free-fur-all holiday. I'll begin," the drunken ruffian bawled. He was of the sort that always leads a mob.
 The growl deepened, for blood-lust and drunkenness go together.
 Terrified for my uncle's safety, I stood breathless, staring at the evil-faced crowd of men going suddenly mad, without excuse. At the farthest edge of the insipient mob, sitting on his horse and watching my uncle's face intently, was the very Mexican whom I had twice seen at Fort Leavenworth. At the drunken rowdy's challenge, I thought that he half-lifted a threatening hand. But Esmond Clarenden only smiled, with a mere turn of his head as if in disapproval. In that minute I learned my first lesson in handling ruffians. I knew that my uncle was not afraid, and because of that my faith in his power to take care of himself came back.
 "I want to leave here in half an hour. If you have any good plains-broke mules you will sell for cash, I can do business with you right now. If not, the sooner you leave this place the better."
 He lifted his small, shapely hand unclenched, his good-natured smile and gentlemanly bearing unchanged, but his low voice was stronger than all the growls of the crowd that fell back like whipped dogs.
 As he spoke a horse-dealer, seeing the gathering before the store, came galloping up.
 "I'm your man. Money talks so I can understand it. Wait five minutes and ten seconds and I'll bring a whole strand of mules."
 A rattling of wagons and roar of voices at the far end of the street told of the arrival of a company coming in from the wharf at Westport, and the crowd whirled about and made haste toward the next scene of interest.
 Only two men remained behind, the tall New England youth and the Mexican on the farther side of the street sitting motionless on his horse. A moment later he was gone, and the street was empty save for the pale-faced invalid who had come over to the doorway where Mat and Beverly and I waited together.
 "Why don't you youngsters stay home with your mother, or is she going with you?" he asked, a gleam of interest lighting his dull face as he looked at Mat Nivers.
 "We haven't any of us got a mother," Mat replied, timidly, lifting her gray eyes to his.
 "Mother! Ain't you all one family?" the young man questioned in surprise.
 "No, we are three orphan children that Uncle Esmond has adopted all our lives, I guess." Beverly informed him.
 A wave of sympathy swept over his face.
 "You poor, lonely, unhappy cubs! You've never had a mother to love you!" he exclaimed, in kindly pity.
 "We aren't poor nor lonely nor unhappy. We have always had Uncle Esmond and we didn't need a mother," I exclaimed, earnestly.
 The young man stared at me as I spoke. "What's he, a bachelor or married man?" he inquired.
 "He couldn't be married and keep us, I reckon, and he's taking us with him so nothing will happen to us while he's gone. He's really truly Bev's uncle and mine, but he's just the same as uncle to Mat, who hasn't anybody else," I declared, enthusiastically. Uncle Esmond was my pride, and I meant that he should be fully appreciated.
 The Yankee gazed at all three of us, his eyes resting longest on Mat's bright face. The listlessness left his own that minute and a new light shone on his countenance. But when he turned to my uncle the seeming lack of all interest in living returned to his face again.
 "Say," he drawled, looking down at the stubborn little merchant from his slim six feet of altitude, "you are such a dam' fool as our friend, the tipsy one, says, that I believe I'll go along 'cross the plains with you, if you'll let me. I've not got a darned thing to lose out there but a sick carcass that I'm pretty tired of looking after," he went on, wearily. "I reckon I might as well see the fun through if I never set a hoof on old Plymouth Rock again. My granddaddy was a minute-man at Lexington. Say"--he paused, and his sober face turned sad--"if all the bean-eaters who claim their grandpas were minute-men tell the truth, there wasn't no glory in winning at Lexington, there was such a tremendous sight of 'em. I've heard about eight million men myself make the same claim. But my granddad was the real article in the minute-men business. And I've always admired his grit most of any man in the world. He was about your shape, I reckon, from his picture that old man Copley got out. But, man! he wasn't a patchin' on your coat-sleeve. You are the preposterous-est unlawful-est infamous-est man I ever saw. It's just straight murder and suicide you are bent on, takin' this awful chance of plungin' into a warrin', snake-eatin' country like New Mexico, and I like you for it. Will you take me as an added burden? If you will, I'll deposit the price of my state-room right now. I've got only a little wad of money to get well on or die on. I can spend it either way--not much difference which. My name is Krane, Rex Krane, and in spite of such a floopsy name I hail from Boston, U.S.A."
 There was a hopeless sagging about the young man's mouth, redeemed only by the twinkle in his eye.
 Esmond Clarenden gave him a steady measuring look. He estimated men easily, and rarely failed to estimate truly.
 "I'll take you on your face value," he answered, "and if you want to turn back there will be a chance to do it out a hundred miles or more on the trail. You can try it that far and see how you like it. I'll furnish you your board. There are always plenty of bedrooms on the ground floor and in one of the wagons on rainy nights. You can take a shift driving a team now and then, and every able-bodied man has to do guard duty some of the time. You understand the dangers of the situation by this time. Here comes my man," he added, as the horse-dealer appeared, leading a string of mules up the street.
 "Here's your critters. Take your choice," the dealer urged.
 "I'll take the brown one," my uncle replied, promptly. And the bargain was closed.
 Mat and Beverly and I had already climbed into our wagon, and Aunty Boone appeared now at the store door, ready to join us.
 "You takin' that nigger?" the trader asked.
 "Yes. Lead out your best offer now. I want another mule," Esmond Clarenden replied.
 But the horse-merchant proved to be harder to deal with than the crowd had been. The foolish risk of losing so valuable a piece of property as Daniel Boone ought to be in the slave-market taxed his powers of understanding, profanity, and abuse.
 "Cussin' solid, an' in streaks," Aunty Boone chuckled, softly, as she listened to him unmoved.
 Equally unmoved was Esmond Clarenden. But his genial smile and diplomatic power of keeping still did not prevent him from being as set as the everlasting hills in his own purpose.
 "This here critter is all I'll sell you," the trader declared at last, pulling a big white-eyed dun animal out of the group. "An' nobody's goin' to drive her easy."
 "I'll take it," Uncle Esmond said, promptly, and the vicious-looking beast was brought to where Aunty Boone stood beside the wagon-tongue.
 It was a clear case of hate at first sight, for the mule began to plunge and squeal the instant it saw her. The woman hesitated not a minute, but lifting her big ham-like foot, she gave it one broadside kick that it must have mistaken for a thunderbolt, and in that low purr of hers, that might frighten a jungle tiger, she laid down the law of the journey.
 "You tote me to Santy Fee, or be a dead mule. Take yo' choice right now! Git up!"
 For fifty days the one dependable, docile servant of the Clarendens was the big dun mule, as gentle and kitten-like as a mule can be.
 And so, in spite of opposing conditions and rabble protest and doleful prophecy and the assurance of certain perils, we turned our faces toward the unfriendly land of the sunset skies, the open West of my childish day-dreams.
 * * * * *
 The prairies were splashed with showers and the warm black soil was fecund with growths as our little company followed the windings of the old trail in that wondrous springtime of my own life's spring. There were eight of us: Clarenden, the merchant; Jondo, the big plainsman; Bill Banney, whom love of adventure had lured from the blue grass of Kentucky to the prairie-grass of the West; Rex Krane, the devil-may-care invalid from Boston; and the quartet of us in the "baby cab," as Beverly had christened the family wagon. Uncle Esmond had added three swift ponies to our equipment, which Jondo and Bill found time to tame for riding as we went along.
 We met wagon-trains, scouts, and solitary trappers going east, but so far as we knew our little company was the only westward-facing one on all the big prairies.
 "It's just like living in a fairy-story, isn't it, Gail?" Beverly said to me one evening, as we rounded a low hill and followed a deep little creek down to a shallow fording-place. "All we want is a real princess and a real giant. Look at these big trees all you can, for Jondo says pretty soon we won't see trees at all."
 "Maybe we'll have Indians instead of giants," I suggested. "When do you suppose we'll begin to see the real _bad_ Indians; not just Osages and Kaws and sneaky little Otoes and Pot'wat'mies like we've seen all our lives?"
 "Sooner than we expect," Beverly replied. "Could Mat Nivers ever be a real princess, do you reckon?"
 "I know she won't," I said, firmly, the vision of that fateful day at Fort Leavenworth coming back as I spoke--the vision of level green prairies, with gray rocks and misty mountain peaks beyond. And somewhere, between green prairies and misty peaks, a sweet child face with big dark eyes looking straight into mine. I must have been a dreamer. And in my young years I wondered often why things should be so real to me that nobody else could ever understand.
 "I used to think long ago at the fort that I'd marry Mat some day," Beverly said, reminiscently, as if he were looking across a lapse of years instead of days.
 "So did I," I declared. "But I don't want to now. Maybe our princess will be at the end of the trail, Bev, a real princess. Still, I love Mat just as if she were my sister," I hastened to add.
 "So do I," Beverly responded, heartily.
 A little grain of pity for her loss of prestige was mingling with our subconscious feeling of a need for her help in the day of the giant, if not in the reign of the princess.
 We were trudging along behind our wagon toward the camping-place for the night, which lay beyond the crossing of the stream. We had lived much out of doors at Fort Leavenworth, but the real out of doors of this journey was telling on us already in our sturdy, up-leaping strength, to match each new hardship. We ate like wolves, slept like dead things, and forgot what it meant to be tired. And as our muscles hardened our minds expanded. We were no longer little children. Youth had set its seal upon us on the day when our company had started out from Independence toward the great plains of the Middle West. Little care had we for the responsibility and perils of such a journey; and because our thoughts were buoyant our bodies were vigorous.
 Our camp that night was under wide-spreading elm-trees whose roots struck deep in the deep black loam. After supper Mat and Beverly went down to fish in the muddy creek. Fishing was Beverly's sport and solace everywhere. I was to follow them as soon as I had finished my little chores. The men were scattered about the valley and the camp was deserted. Something in the woodsy greenness of the quiet spot made it seem like home to me--the log house among the elms and cottonwoods at the fort. As I finished my task I wondered how a big, fine house such as I had seen in pictures would look nestled among these beautiful trees. I wanted a home here some day, a real home. It was such a pleasant place even in its loneliness.
 To the west the ground sloped up gently toward the horizon-line, shutting off the track of the trail beyond the ridge. A sudden longing came over me to see what to-morrow's journey would offer, bringing back the sense of being _shut in_ that had made me lose interest in fishes that wouldn't play leap-frog on the sand-bars. And with it came a longing to be alone.
 Instead of following Mat and Beverly to the creek I went out to the top of the swell and stood long in the April twilight, looking beyond the rim of the valley toward the darkening prairies with the great splendor of the sunset's afterglow deepening to richest crimson above the purpling shadows.
 Oh, many a time since that night have I looked upon the Kansas plains and watched the grandeur of coloring that only the Almighty artist ever paints for human eyes. And always I come back, in memory, to that April evening. The soul of a man must have looked out through the little boy's eyes on that night, and a new mile-stone was set there, making a landmark in my life trail. For when I turned toward the darkening east and the shadowy camp where the evening fires gleamed redly in the dusk, I knew then, as well as I know now, if I could only have put it into words, that I was not the same little boy who had run up the long slope to see what lay next in to-morrow's journey.
 I walked slowly back to the camp and sat down beside Esmond Clarenden.
 "What are you thinking about, Gail?" he asked, as I stared at the fire.
 "I wish I knew what would happen next," I replied.
 Jondo was lying at full length on the grass, his elbow bent, and his hand supporting his head. What a wonderful head it was with its crown of softly curling brown hair!
 "I wonder if we have done wrong by the children, Clarenden," the big plainsman said, slowly.
 Uncle Esmond shook his head as he replied:
 "I can't believe it. They may not be safe with us, but we know they would not have been safe without us."
 Just then Beverly and Mat came racing up from the creek bank.
 "Let us stay up awhile," Mat pleaded. "Maybe we'll be less trouble some of these days if we hear you talk about what's coming."
 "They are right, Jondo. Gail here wants to know what is coming next, and Mat wants a share in our councils. What do you want, Beverly?"
 "I want to practise shooting on horseback. I can hit a mark now standing still. I want to do it on the run," Beverly replied.
 I can see now the earnest look in Esmond Clarenden's eyes as he listened. I've seen it in a mother's eyes more than once since then, as she kissed her eldest-born and watched it toddle off alone on its first day of school; or held her peace, when, breaking home ties, the son of her heart bade her good-by to begin life for himself in the world outside.
 The last light of day was lost over the western ridge. The moon was beginning to swell big and yellow through the trees. Twilight was darkening into night. Bill Banney and Rex Krane had joined us now, for every hour we were learning to keep closer together. Jondo threw more wood on the fire, and we nestled about it in snug, homey fashion as if we were to listen to a fairy-tale--three children slipping fast out of childhood into the stern, hard plains life that tried men's souls. As we listened, the older men told of the perils as well as the fascinating adventures of trail life, that we might understand what lay before us in the unknown days. And then they told us stories of the plains, and of the quaint historic things of Santa Fé; of El Palacio, home of all the Governors of New Mexico; an Indian pueblo first, it may have been standing there when William the Norman conquered Harold of the Saxon dynasty of England; or further back when Charlemagne was hanging heathen by the great great gross to make good Christians of them; or even when old Julius Cæsar came and saw and conquered, on either side of the Rubicon, this same old structure may have sheltered rulers in a world unknown. They told us of the old, old church of San Miguel, a citadel for safety from the savage foes of Spain, a sanctuary ever for the sinful and sorrowing ones. And of the Plaza--sacred ground whereon by ceremonial form had been established deeds that should change the destinies of tribes and shape the trend of national pride and power in a new continent. And of La Garita, place of execution, facing whose blind wall the victims of the Spanish rule made their last stand, and, helpless, fell pierced by the bullets of the Spanish soldiery.
 And we children looked into the dying camp-fire and builded there our own castles in Spain, and hoped that that old flag to which we had thrown good-by kisses such a little while ago would one day really wave above old Santa Fé and make it ours to keep. For, young as we were, the flag already symbolized to us the protecting power of a nation strong and gentle and generous.
 "The first and last law of the trail is to 'hold fast,'" Jondo said, as we broke up the circle about the camp-fire.
 "If you can keep that law we will take you into full partnership to-night," Esmond Clarenden added, and we knew that he meant what he said.