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Category: The Price of the Prairie, A Story of Kansas
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O clear-eyed Faith, and Patience thou So calm and strong! Lend strength to weakness, teach us how The sleepless eyes of God look through This night of wrong!--Whittier

While these May days were slipping by, strange history was making itself in Kansas. I marvel now, as I recall the slender bonds that stayed us from destruction, that we ever dared to do our part in that record-building day. And I rejoice that we did not know the whole peril that menaced us through those uncertain hours, else we should have lost all courage.

 

Father Le Claire held himself neutral to the North and the South, and was sometimes distrusted by both factions in our town; but he went serenely on his way, biding his time patiently. At sunrise on the morning after O'mie had surprised Jean Pahusca with Marjie's wreath of faded blossoms held caressingly in his brown hands, Le Claire met him in the little chapel. What he confessed led the priest to take him at once to the Osages farther down on the Neosho.

"I had hoped to persuade Jean to stay at the Mission," Le Claire said afterwards. "He is the most intelligent one of his own tribe I have ever known, and he could be invaluable to the Osages, but he would not stay away from Springvale. And I thought it best to come back with him."

The good man did not say why he thought it best to keep Jean under his guardianship. Few people in Springvale would have dreamed how dangerous a foe we had in this superbly built, picturesque, handsome Indian.

In the early hours of the morning after his return, the priest was roused from a sound sleep by O'mie. A storm had broken over the town just after midnight. When it had spent itself and roared off down the valley, the rain still fell in torrents, and O'mie's clothes were dripping when he rushed into Le Claire's room.

"For the love av Heaven," he cried, "they's a plot so pizen I must git out of me constitution quick. They're tellin' it up to Conlow's shop. Them two strangers, Yeager and his pal, that's s'posed to be sleepin' now to get an airly start, put out 'fore midnight for a prowl an' found theirsilves right up to Conlow's. An' I wint along behind 'em--respectful," O'mie grinned; "an' there was Mapleson an' Conlow an' the holy Dodd, mind ye. M. E. South's his rock o' defence. An' Jean was there too. They're promisin' him somethin', the strangers air. Tell an' Conlow seemed to kind o' dissent, but give in finally."

"Is it whiskey?" asked the priest.

"No, no. Tell says he can't have nothin' from the 'Last Chance.' Says the old Roman Catholic'll fix his agency job at Washington if he lets Jean get drunk. It's somethin' else; an' Tell wants to git aven with you, so he gives in."

The priest's face grew pale.

"Well, go on."

"There's a lot of carrion birds up there I never see in this town. Just lit in there somehow. But here's the schame. The Confederates has it all planned, an' they're doin' it now to league together all the Injun tribes av the Southwest. They's more 'n twinty commissioned officers, Rebels, ivery son av 'em, now on their way to meet the chiefs av these tribes. An' all the Kansas settlements down the river is to be fell upon by the Ridskins, an' nobody to be spared. Wid them Missouri raiders on the east and the Injuns in the southwest where'll anybody down there be, begorra, betwixt two sich grindin' millstones? I couldn't gather it all in, ye see. I was up on a ladder peeking in through a long hole laid down sideways. But that's the main f'ature av the rumpus. They're countin' big on the Osages becase the Gov'mint trusts 'em to do scout duty down beyont Humboldt, and Jean says the Osages is sure to join 'em. Said it is whispered round at the Mission now. And phwat's to be nixt?"

Father Le Claire listened intently to O'mie's hurried recital. Then he rose up before the little Irishman, and taking both of the boy's hands in his, he said: "O'mie, you must do your part now."

"Phwat can I do? Show me, an' bedad, I'll do it."

"You will keep this to yourself, because it would only make trouble if it were repeated now, and we may outwit the whole scheme without any unnecessary anxiety and fright. Also, you must keep your eyes and ears open to all that's done and said here. Don't let anything escape you. If I can get across the Neosho this morning I can reach the Mission in time to keep the Osages from the plot, and maybe break it up. Then I'll come back here. They might need me if Jean"--he did not finish the sentence. "In two days I can do everything needful; while if the word were started here now, it might lead to a Rebel uprising, and you would be outnumbered by the Copperheads here, backed by the Fingal's Creek crowd. You could do nothing in an open riot."

"I comprehend ye," said O'mie. "It's iverything into me eyes an' ears an' nothin' out av me mouth."

"Meanwhile," the priest spoke affectionately, "you must be strong, my son, to choose the better part. If it's life or death,--O God, that human life should be held so cheap!--if it's left to you to choose who must be the sacrifice, you will choose right. I can trust you. Remember, in two or three days at most, I can be back; but keep your watch, especially of Jean. He means mischief, but I cannot stay here now, much less take him with me. He would not go."

So it happened that Father Le Claire hurried away in the darkness and the driving rain, and at a fearful risk swam his horse across the Neosho, and hastened with all speed to the Mission.

When that midnight storm broke over the town, on the night when O'mie followed the strangers and found out their plot, I helped Aunt Candace to fasten the windows and make sure against it until I was too wide awake to go to bed. I sat down by my window, in the lightning flashes watching the rain, wind-driven across the landscape. The night was pitch black. In all the southwest there was only one light, a sullen red bar of flame that came up from Conlow's forge fire. I watched it indifferently at first because it was there. Then I began to wonder why it should gleam there red and angry at this dead hour of darkness. As I watched, the light flared up as though it were fanned into a blaze. Then it began to blink and I knew some one was inside the shop. It was blotted out for a time, then it glowed again, as if there were many passing and re-passing. I wondered what it could all mean in such an hour, on such a night as this. Then I thought of old Conlow's children, of "Possum" in his weak, good-natured homeliness, and of Lettie. How I disliked her, and wished she would keep out of my way, which she never would do. Her face was clear to me, there in the dark. It grew malicious; then it hardened into wickedness, and I slipped from watching into a drowsy, half-waking sleep in my chair. The red bar of light became the flame of cannon on a battlefield, I saw our men in a life-and-death struggle with the enemy on a rough, wild mountainside. Everywhere my father was leading them on, and by his side Irving Whately bore the Springvale flag aloft. And then beside me lay the color-bearer with white, agonized face, pleading with me. His words were ringing in my ears, "Take care of Marjie, Phil; keep her from harm."

I woke with a start, stiff and shivering. With one half-dazed glance at the black night and that sullen tell-tale light below me, I groped my way to my bed and slept then the dreamless sleep of vigorous youth.

The rain continued for many hours. Yeager and his company could not get away from town on account of the booming Neosho. Also several other strange men seemed to have rained down from nobody asked where, and while the surface of affairs was smooth there was a troubled undercurrent. Nobody seemed to know just what to expect, yet a sense of calamity pervaded the air. Meanwhile the rain poured down in intermittent torrents. On the second evening of this miserable gloom I strolled down to the tavern stables to find O'mie. Bud and John Anderson and both the Mead boys were there, sprawled out on the hay. O'mie sat on a keg in the wagon way, and they were all discussing affairs of State like sages. I joined in and we fought the Civil War to a finish in half an hour. In all the "solid North" there was no more loyal company on that May night than that group of brawny young fellows full of the fire of patriotism, who swore anew their eternal allegiance to the Union.

"It's a crime and a disgrace," declared Dave Mead, "that because we're only boys we can't go to the War, and every one of us, except O'mie here, muscled like oxen; while older, weaker men are being shot down at Chancellorsville or staggering away from Bull Run."

"O'mie 'thgot the thtuff in him though. I'd back him againth David and Goliath," Bud Anderson insisted.

"Yes, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or some other Bible characters," observed Bill Mead. "You'd better join the Methodist Church South, Bud, and let old Dodd labor with you."

Then O'mie spoke gravely:

"Boys, we've got a civil war now in our middust. Don't ask me how I know. The feller that clanes the horses around the tavern stables, trust him fur findin' which way the Neosho runs, aven if he is small an' insignificant av statoor. I've seen an' heard too much in these two dirty wet days."

He paused, and there came into his eyes a pathetic pleading look as of one who sought protection. It gave place instantly to a fearless, heroic expression that has been my inspiration in many a struggle. I know now how he longed to tell us all he knew, but his word to Le Claire held him back.

"I can't tell you exactly phwat's in the air, fur I don't know it all yit. But there's trouble brewin' here, an' we must be ready, as we promised we would be when our own wint to the front."

O'mie had hit home. Had we not sworn our fealty to the flag, and protection to our town in our boyish patriotism the Summer before?

"Boys," O'mie went on, "if the storm breaks here in Springvale we've got to forgit ourselves an' ivery son av us be a hero for the work that's laid before him. Safe or dangerous, it's duty we must be doin', like the true sons av a glorious commonwealth, an' we may need to be lightnin' swift about it, too."

Tell Mapleson and Jim Conlow had come in as O'mie was speaking. We knew their fathers were bitter Rebels, although the men made a pretence to loyalty, which kept them in good company. But somehow the boys had not broken away from young Tell and Jim. From childhood we had been playmates, and boyish ties are strong. This evening the two seemed to be burdened with something of which they dared not or would not speak. There was a sort of defiance about them, such as an enemy may assume toward one who has been his friend, but whom he means to harm. Was it the will of Providence made O'mie appeal to them at the right moment?

"Say, boys," he had a certain Celtic geniality, and a frank winning smile that was irresistible. "Say, boys, all av the crowd's goin' to stand together no matter what comes, just as we've done since we learned how to swim in the shallows down by the Deep Hole. We're goin' to stand shoulder to shoulder, an' we'll save this town from harm, whativer may come in betwane, an' whoiver av us it's laid on to suffer, in the ind we'll win. For why? We are on the right side, an' can count on the same Power that's carried men aven to the inds av the earth to fight an' die fur what's right. Will ye be av us, boys? We've niver had no split in our gang yet. Will ye stay wid us?"

Tell and Jim looked at each other. Then Tell spoke. He had the right stuff in him at the last test always.

"Yes, boys, we will, come what will come."

Jim grinned at Tell. "I'll stand by Tell, if it kills me," he declared.

We put little trust in his ability. It is the way of the world to overlook the stone the Master Builder sometimes finds useful for His purpose.

"An' you may need us real soon, too," Tell called back as the two went out.

"By cracky, I bet they know more 'n we do," Bud Anderson declared.

Dave Mead looked serious.

"Well, I believe they'll hold with us anyhow," he said. "What they know may help us yet."

The coming of another tremendous downpour sent us scampering homeward. O'mie and I had started up the hill together, but the underside of the clouds fell out just as we reached Judson's gate, and by the time we had come to Mrs. Whately's we were ready to dive inside for shelter. When the rain settled down for an all-night stay, Mrs. Whately would wrap us against it before we left her. She put an old coat of Mr. Whately's on me. I had gone out in my shirt sleeves. Marjie looked bravely up at my tall form. I knew she was thinking of him who had worn that coat. The only thing for O'mie was Marjie's big water proof cloak. The old-fashioned black-and-silver mix with the glistening black buttons, such as women wore much in those days. It had a hood effect, with a changeable red silk lining, fastened at the neck. To my surprise O'mie made no objection at all to wearing a girl's wrap. But I could never fully forecast the Irish boy. He drew the circular garment round him and pulled the hood over his head.

"Come, Philip, me strong protector," he called, "let's be skiting."

At the door he turned back to Marjie and said in a low voice, "Phil will mistake me fur a girl an' be wantin' me to go flower-huntin' out on the West Prairie, but I won't do it."

Marjie blushed like the June roses, and slammed the door after him. A moment later she opened it again and held the light to show us the dripping path to the gate. Framed in the doorway with the light held up by her round white arm, the dampness putting a softer curl in every stray lock of her rich brown hair, the roses still blooming on her cheeks, she sent us away. Too young and sweet-spirited she seemed for any evil to assail her in the shelter of that home.

Late at night again the red light of the forge was crossed and re-crossed by those who moved about inside the shop. Aunt Candace and I had sat long together talking of the War, and of the raiding on the Kansas border. She was a balm to my spirit, for she was a strong, fearless woman, always comforting in the hour of sorrow, and self-possessed in the face of danger. I wonder how the mothers of Springvale could have done without her. She decked the brides for their weddings, and tenderly laid out the dead. The new-born babe she held in her arms, and dying eyes looking back from the Valley of the Shadow, sought her face. That night I slept little, and I welcomed the coming of day. When the morning dawned the world was flooded with sunshine, and a cool steady west wind blew the town clear of mud and wet, the while the Neosho Valley was threshed with the swollen, angry waters.

With the coming of the sunshine the strangers disappeared. Nowhere all that day were there any but our own town's people to be seen. Some of these, however, I knew afterwards, were very busy. I remember seeing Conlow and Mapleson and Dodd sauntering carelessly about in different parts of the town, especially upon Cliff Street, which was unusual for them. Just at nightfall the town was filled with strangers again. Yeager and his companion, who had been water-bound, returned with half a dozen more to the Cambridge House, and other unknown men were washed in from the west. That night I saw the red light briefly. Then it disappeared, and I judged the shop was deserted. I did not dream whose head was shutting off the light from me, nor whose eyes were peering in through that crevice in the wall. The night was peacefully beautiful, but its beauty was a mockery to me, filled as I was with a nameless anxiety. I had no reason for it, yet I longed for the return of Father Le Claire. He had not taken Jean with him, and I judged that the Indian was near us somewhere and in the very storm centre of all this uneasiness.

At midnight I wakened suddenly. Outside, a black starless sky bent over a cool, quiet earth. A thick darkness hid all the world. Dead stillness everywhere. And yet, I listened for a voice to speak again that I was sure I had heard as I wakened. I waited only a moment. A quick rapping under my window, and a low eager call came to my ears. I sprang up and groped my way to the open casement.

"What's the matter down there?" I called softly.

"Phil, jump into your clothes and come down just as quick as you can." It was Tell Mapleson's voice, full of suppressed eagerness. "For God's sake, hurry. It's life and death. Hurry! Hurry!"

"Run to the side door, Tell, and call Aunt Candace. She'll let you in."

I heard him make a plunge for the side door. By the time my aunt wakened to open it, I was down stairs. Tell stood inside the hallway, white and haggard. Our house was like a stone fort in its security, and Aunt Candace had fastened the door behind him. She seemed a perfect tower of strength to me, standing there like a strong guardian of the home.

"Stop a minute, Tell. We'll save time by knowing what we are about. What's the matter?" My aunt's voice gave him self-control.

He held himself by a great effort.

"There's not a second to lose, but we can't do anything without Phil. He must lead us. There's been a plot worked up here for three nights in Conlow's shop, to burn' every Union man's house in town. Preacher Dodd and that stranger named Yeager and the other fellow that's been stayin' at the tavern are backin' the whole thing. The men that's been hanging round here are all in the plot. They're to lay low a little while, and at two o'clock the blazin's to begin. Jim's run to Anderson's and Mead's, but we'll do just what Phil says. We'll get the boys together and you'll tell us what to do. The men'll kill Jim an' me if they find out we told, but we swore we'd stay by you boys. We'll help clear through, but don't tell on us. Don't never tell who told on 'em. Please don't." Tell never had seemed manly to me till that moment. "They're awful against O'mie. They say he knows too much. He heard 'em talking too free round the stables. They're after you too, Phil. They think if they get you out of the way, they can manage all the rest. I heard old Dodd tell 'em to make sure of John Baronet's cub. Said you were the worst in town, to come against. They'll kill you if they lay hands on you. They'll come right here after you."

"Then they'll go back without him," my aunt said firmly.

"They say the Indians are to come from the south at daylight," Tell hurried on, "an' finish up all that's left without homes. They're the Kiowas. They'll not get here till just about daylight." Tell's teeth were chattering, and he trembled as with an ague.

"Worst of all,"--he choked now,--"Whately's home's to be left alone, and Jean's to get Marjie and carry her off. They hate her father so, they've let Jean have her. They know she was called over to Judson's late to stay with Mrs. Judson. He's away, water-bound, and the baby's sick, and just as she gets home, he's to get her. If she screams, or tries to get away, he'll scalp her."

I heard no more. My heart forgot to beat. I had seen Marjie's signal light at ten o'clock and I was sure of her safety. The candle turned black before me. The cry of my dreams, Irving Whately's pleading cry, rang in my ears: "Take care of Marjie, Phil! Keep her from harm!"

"Phil Baronet, you coward," Tell fairly hissed in my ear, "come and help us! We can't do a thing without you."

I, a coward! I sprang to the door and with Tell beside me we sped away in the darkness. A faint light glimmered in the Whately home. At the gate, Dave Mead hailed us.

"It's too late, boys," he whispered, "Jean's gone and she's with him. He rode by me like the devil, going toward the ford. They'll be drowned and that's better than for her to live. The whole Indian Territory may be here by morning."

I lifted my face to the pitiless black sky above me, and a groan, the agony of a breaking heart, burst from my lips. In that instant, I lived ages of misery.

"Oh, Phil, what shall we do? The town's full of helpless folks." Dave caught my arm to steady himself. "Can't you, can't you put us to work?"

Could I? His appeal brought me to myself. In the right moment the Lord sends us to our places, and forsakes us not until our task is finished. On me that night, was laid the duty of leadership in a great crisis; and He who had called me, gave me power. Every Union household in the town must be roused and warned of the impending danger. And whatever was done must be done quickly, noiselessly, and at a risk of life to him who did it. My plan sprang into being, and Dave and Tell ran to execute it. In a few minutes we were to meet under the tavern oak. I dashed off toward the Cambridge House. Uncle Cam had not yet gone to bed.

"Where's O'mie?" I gasped.

"I dunno. He flew in here ten minutes or more ago, but he never lit. In ten seconds he was out again an' gone. He's got some sense an' generally keeps his red head level. I'm waitin' to see what's up."

In a word I gave Cam the situation, all except Jean's part. As I hurried out to meet the boys at the oak, I stumbled against something in the dense darkness. Cam hastened after me. The flare of the light from the opening of the door showed a horse, wet and muddy to the throat latch. It stared at the light in fright and then dashed away in the darkness.

All the boys, Tell and Jim, the Meads, John, Clayton, and Bud Anderson,--all but O'mie, met in the deep shadow of the oak before the tavern door. Our plans fell into form with Cam's wiser head to shape them here and there. The town was districted and each of us took his portion. In the time that followed, I worked noiselessly, heroically, taking the most dangerous places for my part. The boys rallied under my leadership, for they would have it so. Everywhere they depended on my word to direct them, and they followed my direction to the letter. It was not I, in myself, but John Baronet's son on whom they relied. My father's strength and courage and counsel they sought for in me. But all the time I felt myself to be like a spirit on the edge of doom. I worked as one who feels that when his task is ended, the blank must begin. Yet I left nothing undone because of the dead weight on my soul.

What happened in that hour, can never all be told. And only God himself could have directed us among our enemies. Since then I have always felt that the purpose crowns the effort. In Springvale that night was a band of resolute lawless men, organized and armed, with every foot of their way mapped out, every name checked, the lintel of every Union doorway marked, men ready and sworn to do a work of fire and slaughter. Against them was a group of undisciplined boys, unorganized, surprised, and unequipped, groping in the darkness full of unseen enemies. But we were the home-guard, and our own lives were nothing to us, if only we could save the defenceless.

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