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I wander alone at dead of night, But ever before me I see a light, In darkest hours more clear, more bright; And the hope that I bear fails never.

FREDRICH RÃœCKERT.


The waters of the Smoky Hill flowed yellow, flecked with foam, beside our camp, where, in a little grove of cottonwood trees, we rested from a long day's march. The heat of a late Kansas summer day was fanned away at twilight by the cool prairie breeze. There was an appealing something in the air that evening hour that made me homesick. So I went down beside the river to fight out my daily battle and let the wide spaces of the landscape soothe me, and all the opal tints of sunset skies and the soft radiance of a prairie twilight bring me their inspiration.

Each day my heart-longing for the girl I must not love grew stronger. I wondered, as I sat here to-night, what trail would open for me when Beverly and Eloise should meet again, as lovers must meet some time. We had not once spoken her name between us, Bev and I, in all the days and nights since we had been in service on the plains.

As I sat lonely, musing vaguely of a score of things that all ran back to one fair face, Beverly dropped down beside me. His face was grave and his eyes had a gentle, pleading look, something strange and different from the man whose moods I knew.

"I'm homesick, Gail." He smiled as he spoke, and all the boy of all the years was in that smile.

"So am I, Bev. It must be in the water here," I replied, lightly.

But neither one misunderstood the other.

"I'd like to see Little Lees to-night. Wouldn't you?" he asked, suddenly.

The question startled me. Maybe my cousin wanted to confide in me here. I would not be selfish with him.

"Yes, I always like to see her. Why to-night, though?" I asked, encouragingly.

Beverly looked steadily into my face.

"I want to tell you something, Gail. I haven't dared to speak before, but something tells me I should speak to-night," he said slowly.

I looked away along the winding valley of the Smoky Hill. I must hear it some time. Why be a coward now?

"Say on, I'm always ready to hear anything from you, Beverly."

I tried to speak firmly, and I hoped my voice did not seem faltering to him. He sat silent a long while. Then he rose and straightened to his full height--a splendid form of strength and wholesomeness and grace.

"I'll tell you some time soon, but not to-night. Honor is something with me yet."

And so he left me.

I dreamed of him that night with Eloise. And all of us were glad. I wakened suddenly. Beverly was standing near me. He turned and walked away, his upright form and gait, even in the faint light, individually Bev's own. I saw him lie down and draw his blanket about him, then sit up a moment, then nestle down again. Something went wrong with sleep and me for a long time, and once I called out, softly:

"Bev, can't you sleep?"

"Oh, shut up! Not if you fidget about me," he replied, with the old happy-go-lucky toss of the head and careless tone.

It was dim dawn when I wakened. My cousin was sleeping calmly just a few feet away. An irresistible longing to speak to him overcame me and I slipped across and gently kicked the slumbering form. Two cavalry blankets rolled apart. A note pinned to the edge of one caught my eye. I stooped to read:

DEAR GAIL, Don't hate me. I'm sick of army life. They will call me a coward and if they get me they will shoot me for a deserter. I have disgraced the Clarenden name. You'll never see me again. Good-bye, old boy.

BEV.

Deserter!

The yells of all the tribes in the battle on the Prairie Dog Creek shrieked not so fiercely in my ears as that word rang now. And all the valley of the Smoky Hill echoed and re-echoed it.

Deserter!

My Beverly--who never told a lie, nor feared a danger, nor ever, except in self-defense, hurt a creature God had made. I could bury Bev, or stand beside him on his wedding-day. But Beverly disgraced! O, God of mercy toward all cowards, pity him!

I sat down beside the blankets I had kicked apart and looked back over my cousin's life. It offered me no help. I thought of Eloise--and his longing to see her on the night before; of his struggle to tell me something. I knew now what that something was. Poor boy!

He was not a boy, he was a man--strong, fearless, happy-hearted. How could the plains make cowards out of such as he? They had made a man of Jondo, who had all excuse to play the coward. The mystery of the human mind is a riddle past my reading--and I had always thought of Beverly's as an open book. The only one to whom I could turn now was not Eloise, nor my uncle, nor Mat nor Rex, but Jondo, John Doe, the nameless man, with whom Esmond Clarenden had walked all these years and for whose sake he had rescued Eloise St. Vrain. They had "toted together," as Aunty Boone had said. Oh, Aunty Boone with dull eyes of prophecy! I could hear her soft voice saying:

"If you get into trouble, Mr. Bev, I come, hot streaks, to help you."

She could not come "hot streaks" now, for Beverly had deserted. But there was Jondo.

I wrote at once to him, inclosing the crumpled note, and then, as one who walks with neither sight nor feeling any more, I rode the plains and did a man's part in that Eighteenth Cavalry campaign of '67. The days went slowly by, bringing the long, bright autumn beauty to the plains and turning all the elms to gold along the creek at Burlingame. Time took away the sharp edge from our grief and shame, and left the dull pain that wears deeper and deeper, unnoticed by us; and all of us who had loved Beverly lived on and were cheerful for one another's sake.

When Jondo--as only Jondo could--bore the news of my letter to Esmond Clarenden, he made no reply, but sat like an image of stone. Rex Krane broke down and sobbed as if his heart would break. But Mat, calm, poised, and always merciful, merely said:

"We must wait awhile."

It was many days before she broke the news to Eloise St. Vrain, who only smiled and said:

"Gail is mistaken. Beverly couldn't desert."

It was when the word came to Aunty Boone that the storm broke. They told me afterward that her face was terrible to see, and that her eyes grew dull and narrow. She went out to the bluff's edge and sat staring up the valley of the Kaw as if to see into the hidden record of the coming years.

One October day, when the Kranes and Eloise sat with my uncle and Jondo in the soft afternoon air, looking out at the beauty of the Missouri bluffs, Aunty Boone loomed up before them suddenly.

"I got somebody's fortune, just come clear before me," she declared, in her soft voice. "Lemme see you' hand, Little Lees!"

Eloise put her shapely white hand upon the big, black paw.

Aunty Boone patted it gently, the first and last caress she ever gave to any of us.

"You' goin' to get a letter from a dark man. You' goin' to take a long journey. And somebody goin' with you. An' the one tellin' this is goin' away, jus' one more voyage to desset sands again, and see Africy and her own kingdom. Whoo-ee!"

Never before, in all the years that we had known her, had she expressed a wish for her early home across he seas. Her voice trailed off weirdly, and she gazed at the Kaw Valley for a long moment. Then she said, in a low tone that thrilled her listeners with its vibrant power:

"Bev ain't no deserter. He's gone out! Jus' gone out. Whoo-ee!"

She disappeared around the corner of the house and stood long in the little side porch where Beverly had kissed Little Blue Flower one night in the "Moon of the Peach-Blossom," and Eloise had found them there, and I had unwittingly heard what was said.

"Is there no variation in palmistry?" Rex Krane asked. "I never knew a gypsy in all my life who read a different set of prophecies. It's always the dark man--I'm light (darn the luck)--and a journey and a letter. But I thought maybe an African seer, a sort of Voodo, hoodoo, bugaboo, would have it a light man and a legacy and company coming, instead of you taking a journey, Eloise."

Eloise smiled.

"You musn't envy me my good fortune, Rex," she declared. "Aunty Boone says she is going back to Africa, too. You'll need a new cook, Uncle Esmond. Let me apply for the place right now."

My uncle smiled affectionately on her.

"I could give you a trial, as I gave her. I remember I told her if she could cook good meals I'd keep her; if not, she'd leave. Do you want to take the risk?"

"That's where you'll get your journey of the prophecy, Eloise," Jondo suggested.

"Well, you leave out the best part of it all," Mat broke in. "She added that Beverly isn't a deserter, he's just 'gone out.' Why don't you believe it all, serious or frivolous?"

A shadow lifted from the faces there as a glimpse of hope came slowly in.

"And as to letters, Eloise," Uncle Esmond said, "I must beg your pardon. I have one here for you that I had forgotten. It came this morning."

"See if it isn't from a dark man, inviting you to take a journey," Rex suggested.

"It must be, it's from Santa Fé," Eloise said, opening the letter eagerly.

Aunty Boone had come back again and was standing by the corner of the veranda, half hidden by vines, watching Eloise with steady eyes. The girl's face grew pale, then deadly white, and her big, dark eyes were opened wide as she dropped the letter and looked at the faces about her.

"It is from Father Josef," she gasped. "He writes of Little Blue Flower somewhere in Hopi-land. He asks me to go to Santa Fé at once for her sake. And it says, too--" The voice faltered and Eloise turned to Esmond Clarenden. "It says that Beverly is there somewhere and he wants you. Read it, Uncle Esmond."

As Eloise rose and laid the letter in my uncle's hand, Aunty Boone, hidden by the vines, muttered in her soft, strange tone:

"He's jus' gone out. Thank Jupiter! He's jus' gone out. I'm goin', hot streaks, to help him, too. Then I go to my own desset where I'm honin' o to be, an' stay there till the judgment Day. Whoo-ee!"

In the early morning of a rare October day upon the plains I sat on my cavalry horse beside Fort Hays, waiting for one last word from my superior officer, Colonel Moore. He was my uncle's friend, and he had been kind to the Clarenden boys, as military kindness runs.

"You are honorably discharged," he said. "Take these letters to Fort Dodge. You will meet your friends there, and have some safeguard from there on, by order of General Sheridan. God bless you, Gail. You have ridden well. I wish you a safe journey, and I hope you'll find your cousin soon. He was a splendid boy until this happened. He may be cleared some day."

"He is splendid still to me in spite of everything," I replied.

"Yes, yes," my colonel responded. "Never a Clarenden disgraced the name before. That is why General Sheridan is granting you a squad to help you. It is a great thing to have a good name. Good-by."

"Good-by. I thank you a thousand times," I said, saluting him.

"And I thank you. A chain, you know, is as strong as its weakest link. A cavalry troop is as able as its soldiers make it."

He turned his horse about, and I rode off alone across the lonely plains a hundred miles away toward old Fort Dodge, beside the Arkansas River. Jondo and Rex were to meet me there for one more trip on the long Santa Fé Trail.


Late September rains had blessed the valley of the Arkansas. The level land about Fort Dodge showed vividly green against the yellow sand-hills across the river, and the brown, barren bluffs westward, where a little city would one day rise in pretty picturesqueness. The scene was like the Garden of Eden to my eyes when I broke through the rough ridges to the north on the last lap of my long ride thither and hurried down to the fort. I grant I did not appear like one who had a right to enter Eden, for I was as brown as a Malayan. Nearly four months of hard riding, sleeping on the ground, with a sky-cover, eating buffalo meat, and drinking the dregs of slow-drying pools, had made a plainsman of me, of the breed that long since disappeared. Golf-sticks and automobile steering-wheels are held by hands to-day no less courageous than those that swung the carbine into place, and flung aside the cavalry bridle-rein in a wild onslaught in our epic day. Each age grows men, flanked by the coward and the reckless daredevil.

Rex Krane was first to recognize me when I reached the fort.

"Oh, we are all here but Mat: Clarenden, Jondo, Aunty Boone, and Little Lees; and a squad of half a dozen cavalry men are ready to go with us." Rex drawled in his old Yankee fashion, hiding an aching heart underneath his jovial greeting.

"All of us!" I exclaimed.

"Yes. Here they all come!" Rex retorted.

They all came, but I saw only one, veiling the joy in my eyes as best I could. For with the face of Eloise before me, I knew the hardest battle of my life was calling me to colors. I had forgotten how womanly she was, or else her summer by the blessed prairies that lap up to the edge of the quiet town of Burlingame had brought her peace and helped her to put away sad memories of her mother.

Behind her--a black background for her fair, golden head--was Aunty Boone.

"Our girl was called to Santa Fé, and Daniel here goes with her. I couldn't stay behind, of course," my uncle said. "The Comanches are making trouble all along the Cimarron, and we will go up the Arkansas by the old trail route. It is farther, but the soldiers say much safer right now, and maybe just as quick for us. There is no load of freight to hinder us--two wagons and our mounts. Besides, the cavalrymen have some matters to look after near the mountains, or we might not have had their protection granted us."

The beauty of that early autumn on the plains and mountains lingers in my memory still, though half a century has passed since that journey on the old, long trail to Santa Fé.

At the closing of an Indian summer day we pitched our camp outside the broken walls of old Fort Bent. Every day found me near Eloise, although the same barrier was between us that had risen up the day she left me in the ruined chapel by the San Christobal River. Every day I longed to tell her what Beverly had said to me the night he--went out. It was due her that she should know how tenderly he had thought of her.

The night was irresistible, soft and balmy for the time of year, as that night had been long ago when we children were marooned inside this stronghold. A thin, growing moon hung in the crystal heavens and all the shadowy places were softened with gray tones. Jondo and Uncle Esmond and Rex Krane were talking together. Aunty Boone was clearing up after the evening meal. The soldiers were about their tasks or pastimes. Only Eloise and I were left beside the camp-fire.

"Let's go and find the place where we spent our last evening here, Little Lees," I said, determined to-night to tell her of Beverly.

"And just as many other places as we can remember," Eloise replied.

We clambered over heaps of fallen stone in the wide doorway, and stood inside the half-roofless ruin that had been a stronghold at the wilderness crossroads.

The outer walls were broken here and there. The wearing elements were slowly separating the inner walls and sagging roofs. Heaps of debris lay scattered about. Over the caving well the well-sweep stuck awry, marking a place of danger. Everywhere was desolation and slow destruction.

We sat down on some fallen timbers in the old court and looked about us.

"It was a pity that Colonel Bent should have blown up this splendid fortress, and all because the Government wouldn't pay him his price for it," I declared.

"Destroyed what he had built so carefully, and what was so useful," Eloise commented. "Sometimes we wreck our lives in the same way."

I have said the twilight seemed to fit her best, although at all times she was fair. But to-night she was a picture in her traveling dress of golden brown, with soft, white folds about her throat. I wondered if she thought of Beverly as she spoke. It hurt me so to be harsh with his memory.

"Yes, Charlie Bent blew up all that the Colonel built into him, of education and the ways of cultured folks--a leader of a Dog Indian band, he is a piece of manhood wrecked. And by the way," I went on, "Beverly shot his beautiful white horse on the Prairie Dog Creek. You should have seen that shot. It was the cleanest piece of long-range marksmanship I ever saw. He hated Bev for that."

"Maybe he gloats over our lost Beverly to-day. He is only 'gone out' to me," Eloise said softly.

"Let me tell you something, Little Lees. Beverly and I never spoke of you--you can guess why--until that last night beside the Smoky Hill. He wanted to tell me something that night."

"And did he?" Eloise asked, eagerly.

"No. He said honor was something with him still. I thought he meant to tell me of himself and you. Forgive me. I do not want any confidences not freely given. But now I know it was the struggle in which he went down that night that he wanted to tell me about. He said first, 'I'm homesick. I'd like to see Little Lees.' And his eyes were full of sympathy as he looked at me."

"Did he say anything more?" Eloise's voice was almost a whisper.

"That was all. I thought that night I should hunt a lonely trail--when he went home to claim--happiness. But now I feel that I could live beside him always--to have him safe with us again."

As I turned to look at Eloise something was in her big, dark eyes--something that disappeared at once. I caught only a fleeting glimpse of it, and I could not understand why a thrill of something near to happiness should sweep through me. It was but the shadow of what might have been for me and was not.

"Do you recall our prophecies here that night when we were children?" Eloise asked.

"Yes, every one. Mat wanted a home, Bev to fight the Indians, and you wanted me to keep Marcos Ramero in his place. I tried to do it," I replied.

And both of us recalled, but did not speak of, the warm, childish kiss of Little Lees upon my lips, and how we gripped hands in the shadows when the moon went cold and grey. Life was so simple then.

"It may be, if our problems and our tragedies crowd into our younger years, they clear the way for all the bright, unclouded years to follow," Eloise said, as we rose to go back to the camp-fire.

"I hope they will leave us strong to meet the bright, unclouded years," I answered her.

On the next day the cavalrymen left us for a time, and we went on alone southward toward our journey's end.

Autumn on the mountain slopes, and in the mesa-girdled valleys of New Mexico hung rainbow-tinted lights by day, with star-beam pointed paths trailing across the blue night-sky. And all the rugged beauty of a picturesque land, basking in lazy warmth, out-breathing sweet, pure air, made the old trail to Santa Fé an enchanting highway to me, despite the burden of a grief that weighed me down. For I could not shut from my mind the pitiful call of Little Blue Flower that had come to Eloise, nor all the uncertainty surrounding my cousin somewhere in the Southwest wanting us.

The little city of adobe walls seemed not to have changed a hair's turn in the six years since I had seen it last. Out beyond the sandy arroyo again Father Josef waited for us. The same strong face and dark eyes, full of fire, the same erect form and manly bearing were his. Except for a few streaks of gray in his close-cropped hair the years had wrought no change in him, save that his countenance betokened the greater benediction of a godly life upon it. As we rode slowly to the door of San Miguel I fell behind. The years since that day when the saucy little girl had called me a big, brown, bob-cat here came back upon my mind, and, though my hope had vanished, still I loved the old church.

Before we had passed the doorway Eloise left her wagon and stood beside my horse.

"Gail, let us stop here with Father Josef while the others go down to Felix Narveo's. It always seems so peaceful here."

"You are always welcome here, my children," Father Josef said, graciously, as I leaped from my horse and stuck its lariat pin down beside the doorway.

Inside there were the same soft lights from the high windows, the same rare old paintings about the altar, the same seat beside the door.

The priest spoke to us in low tones befitting sanctuary stillness. "You have come on a long journey, but it is one of mercy. I only pray you do not come too late," he said.

"Tell us about it, Father," Eloise urged. "The men will get the story from Felix Narveo, but Gail and I seem to belong up here." She smiled up at me with the words.

I could have almost hoped anew just then, but for the thought of Beverly.

"Let us pray first," the holy man replied.

Beverly and I had been confirmed in the Episcopalian faith once long ago, but the plains were hard on the religion of a high-church man. And yet, all sacred forms are beautiful to me, and I always knew what reverence means.

"You may not know," Father Josef said, "that I have Indian blood in my veins--a Hopi strain from some French ancestors. Po-a-be, our Little Blue Flower, is my heathen cousin, descended from the same chief's daughter. The Hopi's faith is a part of him, like his hand or eye, and I have never gained much with the tribe save through blood-ties. But because of that I have their confidence."

"You have all men's confidence, Father Josef," I said, warmly.

"Thank you, my son," the priest replied. "When Santan, the Apache, came back from a long raid eastward, he told Little Blue Flower that Beverly had spared his life beside a poisoned spring in the Cimarron valley, urging him to go back and marry her; life had other interests now to white men who must forget all about Indian girls, he declared, and with Apache adroitness he pressed his claims upon her. But Santan had slain Sister Anita beside the San Christobal Arroyo. A murderer is abhorrent to a Hopi, who never takes life, save in self-defense or in legitimate warfare--if warfare ever is legitimate," he added, gravely.

"My little cousin was heart-broken, for all the years since her rescue at Pawnee Rock she had cherished one face in memory; and maybe Beverly in his happy, careless way had given her cause to do so."

"We understand, I think," Eloise said, turning inquiringly to me.

I nodded, and Father Josef went on. "She knew her love was foolish, but few of us are always wise in love. So Santan's suit seemed promising for a time. But the Hopi type ran true in her, and she put off the Apache year after year. It is a strange case in Indian romance, but romance everywhere is strange enough. The Apache type also ran true to dogged purpose. Besides being an Apache, Santan has some Ramero blood in his veins, to be accounted for in the persistence of an evil will. He was as determined to win Po-a-be as she that he should fail. And he was cunning in his schemes."

Father Josef paused and looked at Eloise.

"To make the story short," he began again, "Santan could not make the Hopi woman hate Beverly, although she knew that her love was hopeless, as it should be. Pardon me, daughter," Father Josef said, gently. "She heard you two talking in a little porch one night at the Clarenden home, and she has believed ever since that you are lovers. That is why she sent for you to come to help her now."

"I saw Beverly give Little Blue Flower a brotherly kiss that night, and I told him, frankly, how it grieved me, because I had known at St. Ann's about her love for him. I had urged her to go with me to the Clarendens', hoping that when she saw Beverly again she would quit dreaming of him."

I looked away, at the paintings and the crucifix above the altar, and the long shafts of light on gray adobe walls, wondering, vaguely, what the next act of this drama might reveal.

"Beverly was always lovable," Father Josef said. "But now the message comes that he is out in the heart of Hopi-land, and because Little Blue Flower is protecting him her people may turn against her. For Beverly's sake, and for her sake, too, my daughter, we must start at once to find her and maybe save his life. She wants you. It is the call of sisterhood. Sister Gloria and I will go with you. I have much influence with my Hopi people."

"Will they put Beverly to death?" I asked.

"I cannot tell, but--see how long the arm of hate can be, my son--Santan, the Apache, has been informed of Beverly's coming by Marcos Ramero, gambler and debauchee. And Marcos got it in some way from Charlie Bent, a Cheyenne half-breed, son of old Colonel Bent, a fine old gentleman. Maybe you knew young Bent?"

"Yes, he holds a grudge against the Clarenden name because we made him play square with us at the old fort when we were children," I told the priest. "He yelled defiance at us in the battle on the Prairie Dog Creek last August. Bev shot his horse from under him just to humble the insolent dog! Beverly never was a coward," I insisted, all my affection for my cousin overwhelming me.

"This makes it clearer," Father Josef said. "Through Bent to Ramero and Ramero to Santan, the word went, somehow. The Apache has gathered up a band of the worst of his breed and they are moving against the Hopis to get Beverly. You and Jondo and Clarenden and Krane will join the little squad of cavalry you left up in the mountains, and turn the Apache back, and all of us must start at once, or we may be too late. May heaven bless our hands and make them strong."

We bowed in reverence for a moment. When we hurried from the dim church into the warm October sunlight, Aunty Boone sat on the door-step beside my horse.

"'He's jus' gone out,' I told 'em so, back there on the Missouri River. He's gone out an' I'm goin', hot streaks, to find him, Little Lees. Whoo-ee!"