Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Article Index


I will even make a way in the wilderness. --ISAIAH.
 Bent's fort stood alone in the wide wastes of the upper Arkansas valley. From the Atlantic to the Pacific shores there was in America no more isolated spot holding a man's home. Out on the north bank of the Arkansas, in a grassy river bottom, with rolling treeless plains rippling away on every hand, it reared its high yellow walls in solitary defiance, mute token of the white man's conquering hand in a savage wilderness. It was a great rectangle built of adobe brick with walls six feet through at the base, sloping to only a third of that width at the top, eighteen feet from the ground. Round bastions, thirty feet high, at two diagonal corners, gave outlook and defense. Immense wooden doors guarded a wide gateway looking eastward down the Arkansas River. The interior arrangement was after the Mexican custom of building, with rooms along the outer walls all opening into a big _patio_, or open court. A cross-wall separated this court from the large corral inside the outer walls at the rear. A portal, or porch, roofed with thatch on cedar poles, ran around the entire inner rectangle, sheltering the rooms somewhat from the glare of the white-washed court. A little world in itself was this Bent's Fort, a self-dependent community in the solitary places. The presiding genius of this community was William Bent, whose name is graven hard and deep in the annals of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountain country in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century.
 Hither in the middle '40's the wild trails of the West converged: northward, from the trading-posts of Bent and St. Vrain on the Platte; south, over the Raton Pass from Taos and Santa Fé; westward, from the fur-bearing plateaus of the Rockies, where trappers and traders brought their precious piles of pelts down the Arkansas; and eastward, half a thousand miles from the Missouri River frontier--the pathways of a restless, roving people crossed each other here. And it was toward this wilderness crossroads that Esmond Clarenden directed his course in that summertime of my boyhood years.
 The heat of a July sun beat pitilessly down on the scorching plains. The weary trail stretched endlessly on toward a somewhere in the yellow distance that meant shelter and safety. Spiral gusts of air gathering out of the low hills to the southeast picked up great cones of dust and whirled them zigzagging across the brown barren face of the land. Every draw was bone dry; even the greener growths along their sheltered sides, where the last moisture hides itself, wore a sickly sallow hue.
 Under the burden of this sun-glare, and through these stifling dust-cones, our little company struggled sturdily forward.
 We had left Santa Fé as suddenly and daringly as we had entered it, the very impossibility of risking such a journey again being our, greatest safeguard. Esmond Clarenden was doing the thing that couldn't be done, and doing it quickly.
 In the gray dawn after that midnight ride to Agua Fria a little Indian girl had slipped like a brown shadow across the Plaza. Stopping at the door of the Exchange Hotel, she leaned against the low slab of petrified wood that for many a year served as a loafer's roost before the hotel doorway. Inside the building Jondo caught the clear twitter of a bird's song at daybreak, twice repeated. A pause, and then it came again, fainter this time, as if the bird were fluttering away through the Plaza treetops.
 In that pause, the gate in the wall had opened softly, and Aunty Boone's sharp eyes peered through the crack. The girl caught one glimpse of the black face, then, dropping a tiny leather bag beside the stone, she sped away.
 A tall young Indian boy, prone on the ground behind a pile of refuse in the shadowy Plaza, lifted his head in time to see the girl glide along the portal of the Palace of the Governors and disappear at the corner of the structure. Then he rose and followed her with silent moccasined feet.
 And Jondo, who had hurried to the hotel door, saw only the lithe form of an Indian boy across the Plaza. Then his eye fell on the slender bag beside the stone slab. It held a tiny scrap of paper, bearing a message:
 _Take long trail QUICK. Mexicans follow far_. Trust bearer anywhere. JOSEF.
 An hour later we were on our way toward the open prairies and the Stars and Stripes afloat above Fort Leavenworth.
 In the wagon beside Mat Nivers was the little girl whose face had been clear in the mystic vision of my day-dreams on the April morning when I had gone out to watch for the big fish on the sand-bars; the morning when I had felt the first heart-throb of desire for the trail and the open plains whereon my life-story would later be written.
 We carried no merchandise now. Everything bent toward speed and safety. Our ponies and mules were all fresh ones--secured for this journey two hours after we had come into Santa Fé--save for the big sturdy dun creature that Uncle Esmond, out of pure sentiment, allowed to trail along behind the wagons toward his native heath in the Missouri bottoms.
 We had crossed the Gloriettas and climbed over the Raton Pass rapidly, and now we were nearing the upper Arkansas, where the old trail turns east for its long stretch across the prairies.
 As far as the eye could see there was no living thing save our own company in all the desolate plain aquiver with heat and ashy dry. The line of low yellow bluffs to the southeast hardly cast a shadow save for a darker dun tint here and there.
 At midday we drooped to a brief rest beside the sun-baked trail.
 "You all jus' one color," Aunty Boone declared. "You all like the dus' you made of 'cep' Little Lees an' me. She's white and I'm black. Nothin' else makes a pin streak on the face of the earth."
 Aunty Boone flourished on deserts and her black face glistened in the sunlight. Deep in the shadow of the wagon cover the face of Eloise St. Vrain--"Little Lees," Aunty Boone had named her--bloomed pink as a wild rose in its frame of soft hair. She had become Aunty Boone's meat and drink from the moment the strange African woman first saw her. This regard, never expressed in caress nor word of tenderness, showed itself in warding from the little girl every wind of heaven that might visit her too roughly. Not that Eloise gave up easily. Her fighting spirit made her rebel against weariness and the hardships of trail life new to her. She fitted into our ways marvelously well, demanding equal rights, but no favors. By some gentle appeal, hardly put into words, we knew that Uncle Esmond did not want us to talk to her about herself. And Beverly and Mat and I, however much we might speculate among ourselves, never thought of resisting his wishes.
 Eloise was gracious with Mat, but evidently the boy Marcos had made her wary of all boys. She paid no attention to Beverly and me at first. All her pretty smiles and laughing words were for Uncle Esmond and Jondo. And she was lovely. Never in all these long and varied years have I seen another child with such a richness of coloring, nor such a mass of golden hair rippling around her forehead and falling in big, soft curls about her neck. Her dark eyes with their long black lashes gave to her face its picturesque beauty, and her plump, dimpled arms and sturdy little form bespoke the wholesome promise of future years.
 But the life of the trail was not meant for such as she, and I know now that the assurance of having saved her from some greater misfortune alone comforted Uncle Esmond and Jondo in this journey. For Aunty Boone was right when she declared, "They tote together always."
 As we grouped together under that shelterless glare, getting what comfort we could out of the brief rest, Jondo sprang up suddenly, his eyes aglow with excitement.
 "What's the matter? Because if it isn't, this is one hot day to pretend like it is," Rex Krane asserted.
 He was lying on the hot earth beside the trail, his hat pulled over his face. Beverly and Bill Banney were staring dejectedly across the landscape, seeing nothing. I sat looking off toward the east, wondering what lay behind those dun bluffs in the distance.
 "Something is wrong back yonder," Jondo declared, making a half-circle with his hand toward the trail behind us.
 My heart seemed to stop mid-beat with a kind of fear I had never known before. Aunty Boone had always been her own defender. Mat Nivers had cared for me so much that I never doubted her bigger power. It was for Eloise, Aunty Boone's "Little Lees," that my fear leaped up.
 I can close my eyes to-day and see again the desolate land banded by the broad white trail. I can see the dusty wagons and our tired mules with drooping heads. I can see the earnest, anxious faces of Esmond Clarenden and Jondo; Beverly and Bill Banney hardly grasping Jondo's meaning; Rex Krane, half asleep on the edge of the trail. I can see Mat Nivers, brown and strong, and Aunty Boone oozing sweat at every pore. But these are only the setting for that little girl on the wagon-seat with white face and big dark eyes, under the curl-shadowed forehead.
 Jondo stared hard toward the hills in the southeast. Then he turned to my uncle with grim face and burning eyes; His was a wonderful voice, clear, strong and penetrating. But in danger he always spoke in a low tone.
 "I've watched those dust-whirls for an hour. The wind isn't making all of them. Somebody is stirring them up for cover. Every whirl has an Indian in it. It's all of ten miles to Bent's. We must fight them off and let the others run for it, before they cut us off in front. Look at that!"
 The exclamation burst from the plainsman's lips.
 That was my last straight looking. The rest is ever a kaleidoscope of action thrilled through with terror. What I saw was a swiftly moving black splotch coming out of the hills, with huge dust-heaps flying here and there before it. Then a yellow cloud spiral blinded our sight as a gust of hot wind swept round us. I remember Jondo's stern face and blazing eyes and his words:
 "Mexicans behind the Indians!"
 And Uncle Esmond's voice:
 "Narveo said they would get us, but I hoped we had outrun them."
 The far plains seemed spotted with Indians racing toward us, and coming at an angle from the southeast a dozen Mexicans swept in to cut us off from the trail in front.
 I remember a quick snatching of precious things in boxes placed for such a moment as this, a quick snapping of halter ropes around the ponies' necks, a gleaming of gun-barrels in the hot sunlight; a solid cloud of dust rolling up behind us, bigger and nearer every second; and the urgent voice of Jondo: "Ride for your lives!"
 And the race began. On the trail somewhere before us was Bent's Fort. We could only hope to reach it soon. We did not even look behind as we tore down that dusty wilderness way.
 At the first motion Aunty Boone had seized Eloise St. Vrain with one hand and the big dun mule's neck-strap with the other.
 "Go to the devil, you tigers and cannibals!" She roared with the growl of a desert lioness, shaking her big black fist at the band of Mexicans pouring out of the hills.
 And dun mule and black woman and white-faced, terror-stricken child became only a dust-cloud far in front of us. Mat and Beverly and I leaped to the ponies and followed the lead of the African woman. Nearest to us was Rex Krane, always a shield for the younger and less able. And behind him, as defense for the rear and protection for the van, came Esmond Clarenden and Bill Banney, with Jondo nearest the enemy, where danger was greatest.
 I tell it calmly, but I lived it in a blind whirl. The swift hoof-beat, the wild Indian yells, the whirl of arrows and whiz of bullets, the onrush to outrun the Mexicans who were trying to cut us off from the trail in front. Lived it! I lived ages in it. And then an arrow cut my pony's flank, making him lurch from the trail, a false step, the pony staggering, falling. A sharp pain in my shoulder, the smell of fire, a shriek from demon throats, the glaring sunlight on the rocking plain, searing my eyes in a mad whirlpool of blinding light, the fading sounds--and then--all was black and still.
 * * * * *
 When I opened my eyes again I was lying on a cot. Bare adobe walls were around me, and a high plastered roof resting on cedar poles sheltered that awful glare from my eyes. Through the open door I could see the rain falling on the bare ground of the court, filling the shallow places with puddles.
 I tried to lift myself to see more as shrieks of childish laughter caught my ear, but there was a sickish heat in my dry skin, an evil taste in my throat, and a sharp pain in my left shoulder; and I fell back again.
 Another shriek, and Eloise St. Vrain came before my doorway, pattering with bare white feet out into the center of the _patio_ puddles and laughing at the dashing summer shower. Her damp hair, twisted into a knot on top of her head, was curling tightly about her temples and neck, her eyes were shining; her wet clothes slapping at her bare white knees--a picture of the delicious happiness of childhood. A little child of three or four years was toddling after her. He was brown as a berry, and at first I thought he was a little Indian. I could hear Mat and Beverly splashing about safe and joyous somewhere, and I forgot my fever and pain and the dread of that awful glare coming again to sear my burning eyeballs as I watched and listened. A louder shriek as the little child ran behind Eloise and gave her a vigorous shove for one so small.
 "Oh, Charlie Bent, see what you've done," Mat cried; and then Beverly was picking up "Little Lees," sprawling, all mud-smeared and happy, in the very middle of the court.
 The child stood looking at her with shining black eyes full of a wicked mischief, but he said not a word.
 Just then a dull grunt caught my ear, and I half-turned to see a cot beyond mine. An Indian boy lay on it, looking straight at me. I stared back at him and neither of us spoke. His head was bandaged and his cheek was swollen, but with my memory for faces, even Indian faces, I knew him at once for the boy who had followed us into Agua Fria and out of it again.
 Just then the frolickers came to the door and peered in at me.
 "Are you awake?" Eloise asked.
 Then seeing my face, she came romping in, followed by Mat and Beverly and little Charlie Bent, all wet and hilarious. They gave no heed to the Indian boy, who pretended to be asleep. Once, however, I caught him watching Beverly, and his eyes were like dagger points.
 "We are having the best times. You must get well right away, because we are going to stay." They all began to clatter, noisily.
 Rex Krane appeared at the door just then and they stopped suddenly.
 "Clear out of here, you magpies," he commanded, and they scuttled away into the warm rain and the puddles again.
 "Do you want anything, Gail?" Rex asked, bending over me.
 I drew his head down with my right arm.
 "I want that Indian out of here," I whispered.
 "Out he goes," Rex returned, promptly, and almost before I knew it the boy was taken away. When we were alone the tall young man sat down beside me.
 "You want to ask me a million questions. I'll answer 'em to save you the trouble," he began, in his comfortable way.
 "You are wounded in your shoulder. Slight, bullet, that's Mexican; deep, arrow, that's Indian. But you are here and pretty much alive and you will be well soon."
 "And Uncle Esmond? Jondo? Bill?" I began, lifting myself up on my well arm.
 "Keep quiet. I'll answer faster. Everybody all right. Clarenden and Jondo leave for Independence the minute you are better, and a military escort permits."
 I dropped down again.
 "The U.S. Army, en route for perdition, via Santa Fé, is camping in the big timbers down-stream now. Jondo and Esmond Clarenden will leave you boys and girls here till it's safe to take you out again. And I and Daniel Boone, vestal god and goddess of these hearth-fires, will keep you from harm till that time. Bill's joining the army for sure now, and our happy family life is ended as far as the Santa Fé Trail is concerned. I'm a well man now, but not quite army-well yet, they tell me."
 "Tell me about this." I pointed to my shoulder.
 "All in good time. It was a nasty mess of fish. A dozen Mexicans and as many Indians had followed us all the way from the sunny side of the Gloriettas. You and Bev and Mat had got by the Mexics. Daniel Boone and 'Little Lees' were climbing the North Pole by that time. The rest of us were giving battle straight from the shoulder; and someway, I don't know how, just as we had the gang beat back behind us--you had a sniff of a bullet just then--an Indian slipped ahead in the dust. I was tendin' to mite of an arrow wound in my right calf, and I just caught him in time, aimin' at Bev; but he missed him for you. I got him, though, and clubbed his scalp a bit loose."
 Rex paused and stared at his right leg.
 "How did that boy get here, Rex? Is he a friendly Indian?" I asked.
 "Oh, Jondo brought him in out of the wet. Says the child was made to come along, and as soon as he could get away from the gang he had to run with up here; he came right into camp to help us against them. Fine young fellow! Jondo has it from them in authority that we can trust him lyin' or tellin' the truth. _He's all right._"
 "How did he get hurt?" I inquired, still remembering in my own mind the day at Agua Fria.
 "He'd got into our camp and was fightin' on our side when it happened," Rex replied.
 "Some of them shot at him, then?" I insisted. "No, I beat him up with the butt of my gun for shootin' you," Rex said, lazily.
 "At me! Why don't you tell Jondo?"
 "I tried to," Rex answered, "but I can't make him see it that way. He's got faith in that redskin and he's going to see that he gets back to New Mexico safely--after while."
 "Rex, that's the same boy that was down in Agua Fria, the one Bev laughed at. He's no good Indian," I declared.
 "You are too wise, Gail Clarenden," Rex drawled, carelessly. "A boy of your brains had ought to be born in Boston. Jondo and I can't agree about him. His name, he says, is Santan. There's one 'n' too many. If you knock off the last one it makes him Santa--'holy'; but if you knock out the middle it's Satan. We don't knock out the same 'n', Jondo and me."
 Just then the little child came tumbling noisily into the room.
 "Look here, youngun. You can't be makin' a racket here," Rex said.
 The boy stared at him, impudently.
 "I will, too," he declared, sullenly, kicking at my cot with all his might.
 Rex made no reply but, seizing the child around the waist, he carried him kicking and screaming outside.
 "You stay out or I'll spank you!" Rex said, dropping him to the ground.
 The boy looked up with blazing eyes, but said nothing.
 "That's little Charlie Bent. His daddy runs this splendid fort. His mother is a Cheyenne squaw, and he's a grim clinger of a half-breed. Some day he'll be a terror on these plains. It's in him, I know. But that won't interfere with us any. And you children are a lot safer here than out on the trail. Great God! I wonder we ever got you here!" Rex's face was very grave. "Now go to sleep and wake up well. No more thinkin' like a man. You can be a child again for a while."
 Those were happy days that followed. Safe behind the strong walls of old Fort Bent, we children had not a care; and with the stress and strain of the trail life lifted from our young minds, we rebounded into happy childhood living. Every day offered a new drama to our wonder-loving eyes. We watched the big hide-press for making buffalo robes and furs into snug bales. We climbed to the cupola of the headquarters department and saw the soldiers marching by on their way to New Mexico. We saw the Ute and the Red River Comanche come filing in on their summer expeditions from the mountains. We saw the trade lines from the far north bearing down to this wilderness crossroads with their early fall stock for barter.
 Our playground was the court off which all the rooms opened. And however wild and boisterous the scenes inside those walls in that summer of 1846, in four young lives no touch of evil took root. Stronger than the six-feet width of wall, higher than the eighteen feet of adobe brick guarding us round about, was the stern strength of the young Boston man interned in the fort to protect us from within, as the strength of that structure defended us from without.
 And yet he might have failed sometimes, had it not been for Aunty Boone. Nobody trifled with her.
 "You let them children be. An give 'em the run of this shack," she commanded of the lesser powers whose business was to domineer over the daily life there. "The man that makes trouble wide as a needle is across is goin' to meet me an' the Judgment Day the same minute."
 "When Daniel gets on her crack-o'-doom voice, the mountains goin' to skip like rams and the little hills like lambs, an' the Army of the West won't be necessary to protect the frontier," Rex declared. But he knew her worth to his cause, and he welcomed it.
 And so with her brute force and his moral strength we were unconsciously intrenched in a safety zone in this far-isolated place.
 With neither Uncle Esmond nor Jondo near us for the first time in our remembrance, we gained a strength in self-dependence that we needed. For with the best of guardianship, there are many ways in which a child's day may be harried unless the child asserts himself. We had the years of children but the sturdy defiance of youth. So we were happy within our own little group, and we paid little heed to the things that nobody else could forestall for us.
 Outside of our family, little Charlie Bent, the half-breed child of the proprietor of the fort, was a daily plague. He entered into all of our sports with a quickness and perseverance and wilfulness that was thoroughly American. He took defeat of his wishes, and the equal measure of justice and punishment, with the silent doggedness of an Indian; and on the edge of babyhood he showed a spirit of revenge and malice that we, in our rollicking, affectionate lives, with all our teasing and sense of humor, could not understand; so we laughed at his anger and ignored his imperious demands.
 Behind him always was his Cheyenne mother, jealously defending him in everything, and in manifold ways making life a burden--if we would submit to the making, which we seldom did.
 And lastly Santan, the young boy who had deserted his Mexican masters for Jondo's command, contrived, with an Indian's shrewdness, never to let us out of his sight. But he gave us no opportunity to approach him. He lived in his own world, which was a savage one, but he managed that it should overlap our world and silently grasp all that was in it. Beverly had persistently tried to be friendly for a time, for that was Beverly's way. Failing to do it, he had nick-named the boy "Satan" for all time.
 "We found Little Blue Flower a sweet little muggins," Beverly told the Indian early in our stay at the fort. "We like good Indians like her. She's one clipper."
 Santan had merely looked him through as though he were air, and made no reply, nor did he ever by a single word recognize Beverly from that moment.
 The evening before we left Fort Bent we children sat together in a corner of the court. The day had been very hot for the season and the night was warm and balmy, with the moonlight flooding the open space, edging the shadows of the inner portal with silver. There was much noise and boisterous laughter in the billiard-room where the heads of affairs played together. Rex Krane had gone to bed early. Out by the rear gate leading to the fort corral, Aunty Boone was crooning a weird African melody. Crouching in the deep shadows beside the kitchen entrance, the Indian boy, Santan, listened to all that was said.
 To-night we had talked of to-morrow's journey, and the strength of the military guard who should keep us safe along the way. Then, as children will, we began to speculate on what should follow for us.
 "When I get older I'm going to be a freighter like Jondo, Bill and me. We'll kill every Indian who dares to yell along the trail. I'm going back to Santa Fé and kill that boy that stared at me like he was crazy one day at Agua Fria."
 In the shadows of the porchway, I saw Santan creeping nearer to us as Beverly ran on flippantly:
 "I guess I'll marry a squaw, Little Blue Flower, maybe, like the Bents do, and live happily ever after."
 "I'm going to have a big fine house and live there all the time," Mat Nivers declared. Something in the earnest tone told us what this long journey had meant to the brave-hearted girl.
 "I'm going to marry Gail when I grow up," Eloise said, meditatively. "He won't ever let Marcos pull my hair." She shook back the curly tresses, gold-gleaming in the moonlight, and squeezed my hand as she sat beside me.
 "What will you be, Gail?" Mat asked.
 "I'll go and save Bev's scalp when he's gunning too far from home," I declared.
 "Oh, he'll be 'Little Lees's' husband, and pull that Marcos cuss's nose if he tries to pull anybody's curls. Whoo-ee! as Aunty Boone would say," Beverly broke in.
 I kept a loving grip on the little hand that had found mine, as I would have gripped Beverly's hand sometimes in moments when we talked together as boys do, in the confidences they never give to anybody else.
 A gray shadow dropped on the moon, and a chill night wind crept down inside the walls. A sudden fear fell on us. The noises inside the billiard room seemed far away, and all the doors except ours were closed. Santan had crept between us and the two open doorways leading to our rooms. What if he should slip inside. A snake would have seemed better to me.
 A silence had fallen on us, and Eloise still clung to my hand. I held it tightly to assure her I wasn't afraid, but I could not speak nor move. Aunty Boone's crooning voice was still, and everything had grown weird and ghostly. The faint wailing cry of some wild thing of the night plains outside crept to our ears, making us shiver.
 "When the stars go to sleep an' the moon pulls up the gray covers, it's time to shut your eyes an' forget." Aunty Boone's soft voice broke the spell comfortingly for us. "Any crawlin' thing that gits in my way now, goin' to be stepped on."
 At the low hissing sound of the last sentence there was a swift scrambling along the shadows of the porch, and a door near the kitchen snapped shut. The big shining face of the African woman glistened above us and the court was flooded again with the moon's silvery radiance. As we all sprang up to rush for our rooms, "Little Lees" pulled me toward her and gently kissed my cheek.
 "You never would let Marcos in if he came to Fort Leavenworth, would you?" she whispered.
 "I'd break his head clear off first," I whispered back, and then we scampered away.
 That night I dreamed again of the level plains and Uncle Esmond and misty mountain peaks, but the dark eyes were not there, though I watched long for them.
 The next day we left Fort Bent, and when I passed that way again it was a great mass of yellow mounds, with a piece of broken wall standing desolately here and there, a wreck of the past in a solitary land.